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CVP

Rethinking Fire Safety Solutions


Does anyone besides PGE really want our future to be filled with massive power outages every time the wind blows on a hot day? At the same time, without some kind of significant action, as our planet warms, dealing with wildfires will likely become a way of life in most parts of California. This forces everyone -- residents, governments, emergency responders, and businesses -- to face a complex and, at first glance, unsolvable conundrum.

We all want to protect our homes and we've made an enormous investment in improving them and our properties. Cities want to look out for our health, safety, and general welfare and are rightfully concerned about the legal liabilities of not taking action. Emergency responders repeatedly advise us about the dangers of not taking fire safety seriously. And businesses and insurance companies can’t make long term investments or provide adequate or affordable coverage in communities that are at high risk of firestorm devastation. [1]

But something else has somehow gotten sidelined in the fire safety conversation: the environment and the environmental cost of doing nothing and the equally disastrous environmental cost of ignoring the impacts of proposed "solutions" on habitat and plant and animal species. For example, the recent Mill Valley Vegetation Management Fire Ordinance originally required the denuding the perimeter of all structures (not just requiring “non-combustible” materials), the equivalent of an estimated 60 acres of land, and stated that no environmental assessment was required.

This ordinance failed to balance or realistically consider the environmental impacts or the competing interests noted, above. As a result, it was immediately contested by a lawsuit that will set back the implementation of any changes at all, for years to come.

This is not a prudent way to proceed.

So what should we be doing?

To answer this we need to examine some of the assumptions that most of the fire safety plans we’re seeing from cities are based on.

The “science” of fire agencies is not the only science required to address fire prevention and safety challenges properly

There is no question that fire experts, such as FireSafeMarin, know what they’re talking about. These organizations are dedicated to researching fire safety and working to educate the public and cities about the dangers we all face if we ignore the adoption of new fire safety standards. Their work is invaluable.

That said, however, as expert as fire safety agencies are in the data and science in their field, they would never claim to be experts in related disciplines such as architecture, building engineering, habitat ecology, biology, species extinction, or erosion and soils degradation.

When we look for ways to address fire safety, we need to look outside of the important but limited expertise of fire responders. There is a great deal other disciplines can add to the conversation, as demonstrated in the comprehensive ecological evaluation by the Watershed Alliance of Marin’s comment letter on the Mill Valley Vegetation Management Plan Fire Ordinance.

Environmental impacts are not an afterthought

Fire safety analysis is focused on emergency preparedness, firefighting, and the associated protection of lives and property. And that’s all great. However, as a consequence of this, the “natural capital” value of our life-supporting environment, unique micro-ecosystems, and habitat that supports our incredible variety of plant and animal species are under-valued or even given no value, because they are neither defined as “property” nor “lives” to be considered or “valued” by insurance actuaries or government agencies.

Sadly, although once the country’s leader, it is no secret that California has officially thrown the environment under the bus in the name of unlimited growth and voracious revenue enhancement.

This is extremely ironic since it is arguable that our incredible natural surroundings and robust ecosystems are the major driving force supporting the high real estate valuations and therefore the tax base that our cities and county enjoy. Habitat and species are critical to our financial viability.

It seems the only time environmental concerns and impacts even enter the conversation is when someone brings up CEQA requirements (or sues to enforce them), which developers, housing advocates, city agencies, state government, and even judges these days appear to automatically assume to be groundless and consider an annoyance. Yet, most CEQA claims are heard in court (frivolous suits are dismissed), particularly when they address concerns about wildlife and threatened species. And it's interesting to note that recent surveys of California developers show that when asked what the biggest impediments to growth are, CEQA is far down the list of developer’s concerns.

Better building standards matter

Much is being made of the need to “harden” our environment, but I think too little is being discussed about hardening our homes. If you look at any of the photos in the news about the aftermath of fires, you’ll notice that many trees and shrubs are scarred but remain intact, while the homes are burnt to cinders. Aside from concentrations of dense, dry underbrush, homes and other man-made structures are the most flammable things in the WUI.

Progress has been made with the adoption of Chapter 7a [SFM] Materials and Construction Methods for Exterior Wildfire Exposure of the new California Building Code. Generally, with some exceptions, it requires that all new construction and substantial rehabilitation of homes in the Moderate, High, and Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones in the WUI, use “ignition-resistant “and “fire-retardant” materials.

This would obviously include roofing, siding, and suggest using construction materials that are made of demonstrably “fireproof” materials, such as concrete, stone, metal, plaster, steel studs, glass, or other wood and composite materials that are treated or manufactured to be “fire-retardant” and “non-combustible.”

These new requirements also include design features, such as “ember-resistant” roof vents, that prevent fires from jumping from house to house. There are even companies now marketing exterior “misting” systems that spray down the exterior of a home when satellite guidance shows a fire approaching. This is based on evidence that homes that were kept wet during recent California fires, fared better than those that weren’t.

“Hardening” homes versus hardening the landscape

The history of human nature is the history of ignoring long-term consequences then declaring a panicky “crisis” to justify over-reacting to cover-up past mistakes. So PG&E, and even more so the dysfunctional government agencies that oversee them, have mismanaged the deferred maintenance of the power grid for decades, while rewarding their executives with generous compensation and pension benefits, and are now intent on punishing their customers every time the wind blows.

PG&E is so incompetent that they have shut off tens of thousands of customers along the eastern shores of Marin County that are in neighborhoods and business centers that are not in any type of CPUC designated fire zones and have a zero chance of being impacted by a wildfire. The truth is that all of the major fires in the past few years, including the Kincade Fire, have been started by malfunctioning PGE equipment, not residents or because some homeowner had a bush next to their house.

So, one has to wonder, are we protecting ourselves against wildfires or PG&E?

This is not to say we should ignore fire-safe standards. We definitely should. But another aspect of this knee-jerk reaction includes the fervor to blame nature and “harden” the landscape anywhere near a home in the WUI. This has resulted in an over-emphasis on “hardening” the landscape, but not enough emphasis on hardening housing construction.

Creating a reasonable amount of "defensible space" is, of course, a good idea, even if only to discourage roof rats and other undesirable critters. Having “non-combustible” materials, such as pea gravel (instead of wood chips), and well-watered lawns, ground covers, and shrubs close to homes also makes good sense. But demanding absolute “hardscape” with no vegetation at all – as the recent Mill Valley Ordinance originally required -- is over-reacting. Even Governor Newsom, who is where the buck stops regarding the cost of state firefighting, refused to sign Assembly Bill 1516 that required 5 feet of “hardscape” around all homes.

This kind of simplistic over-reach is the major flaw in the current fire safety policy conversation. The elephant in the room is the design of the homes themselves.

That said, many of our local regulations, such as the typical Design Review Guidelines we find in most Marin County cities and the architectural aesthetic they demand, are standing in the way of promoting fire-safe solutions.

Out-dated Design Guidelines

Let’s look at the City of Mill Valley Single Family Design Review Guidelines, as an example.

The first thing you notice reading through the Guidelines is that almost all the photographs of homes shown in the 19-page document are of 19th century style, cottage-looking residences, mostly built of wood, with wood porches, wood fences, wood siding, pitched roofs, dormers, etc. None of them could be categorized as being “modern” or “post-modern” or “contemporary” architecture. They pretty much look like houses have looked for a hundred years.

I realize it is precisely this kind of “small-town charm” that drives families to spend their last dime to live in Southern Marin. I admit it had that same effect on me when I bought my home 26 years ago (my house is “craftsman” style). But I’ve come to realize that this extremely limited architectural palette is stifling innovation, particularly when faced with finding design solutions for homes in the WUI.

Certainly, some wooden materials can be treated to become fire-resistant, but in a firestorm, they’re no match for steel, tempered glass, concrete, stone, stucco, cementitious board, and metal roofing: materials more commonly associated with modern and contemporary design.

Re-imagining our Design Guidelines

The Mill Valley Design Guidelines’ requirements emphasize that modern or more creative architectural solutions are to be discouraged. For example, on page 13, paragraph (b), it states,

Building articulation, fenestration, roof forms, and other major building elements should complement neighboring development...

Translation: Do designs that look like everyone else’s designs.

Or Guideline 10 (b),

Large, unbroken, horizontal planes and two story uninterrupted, vertical elevations are discouraged.

and 10 (e),

Sizable roof overhangs (exceeding the requirement for sunscreening), decks and upper story cantilevers should be avoided if the resulting building form unnecessarily increases the mass of the structure.

Why?

Some of the greatest homes ever designed break those rules. This means Frank Lloyd Wright could never have gotten a home design approved in Mill Valley.

Robie-House-Exterior.jpg

Robie House – Frank Lloyd Wright

Or consider 13 (c)

(c) Buildings and site work should utilize materials and colors that are compatible with others in the neighborhood, and do not attract attention to themselves.

I’m sorry, but design innovation tends to utilize new and different materials and it does attract attention.

North-Bay-Residence-Prentiss-Architects.jpg

This example of a contemporary home, by Prentiss Architects, demonstrates that fire-safe, hardened home design, can break those rules and look and perform better because of it.

I could almost understand this design micro-managing if it truly served some purpose – like better fire safety -- but it doesn’t. We need to encourage new ideas and styles, which might be far more conducive to using more fireproof materials and building truly fire-safe homes that could even be a refuge in a firestorm… a place of shelter, so there’s no need to evacuate at all.

People living in the plains states have well-provisioned, underground and basement shelters to sit out tornadoes. We have to wonder if it wouldn't be safer to be in a fireproof shelter in the basement of a home, than trying to outrun a firestorm, down a mountain.

How do we pay for fire-safe homes?

It’s all well and good to conjure up ideas about better design and pass new building codes about how to design fire-safe homes. But, in places like Southern Marin, we don’t build or substantially renovate that many homes a year. So, the vast majority of our housing stock doesn’t even come close to meeting the new fire-safe standards and never will.

That is the biggest fire-safety problem we face. And few residents could afford the cost of a total retrofit, even if they wanted to.

As things are, it’s unrealistic to think that the financial burdens of making homes fire-safe can be simply dumped on individual property owners, or that penalizing them financially will have any positive effect on property improvements, or even be enforceable.

The conundrums in all this now become obvious. Everyone wants to do the right thing, but the costs of doing so are prohibitive. There are about 3,500 homes in Mill Valley in High or Very High Fire Severity Zones. The costs of completely renovating these homes from bottom-up to be truly fire-safe and meet the current code could easily average $200,000 per home. That equates to $700 million.

That’s an enormous undertaking and an insurmountable financial burden to place on homeowners or city agencies in small towns like Mill Valley. So, it’s certainly not going to happen on its own. But, there may be ways to significantly chip away at it if proper financial incentives are put in place.

Fire Safe Tax Credits

There is great concern and consternation about California wildfires, in Sacramento. But, one thing that has never been included in the fire safety conversation is the potential, positive impacts of creative tax laws. Probably one of the most successful strategies to incentivize positive changes in residential construction and development has been implementing tax credits. One only needs to look at the solar energy business to confirm that.

Well-crafted tax credit legislation can pay for itself and then some. Tax credits stimulate investment and business development, grow local economies, and create jobs, all of which increase tax revenues on sales and wages and in other ways.

Instead of trying to pass an unending succession of top-down laws to demand change or penalize noncompliance, perhaps the state should be focusing on creating a state, residential retrofit tax credit to “harden” existing homes to make them fire-safe. Those homes make up the majority of our wildfire loss of life and property, not just for the owners but their neighbors, too. These homes are the biggest problem we need to address.

As an additional incentive, the “home safe” retrofit tax credit should be accompanied by legislation that guaranteed there would be no increase in property tax assessment for approved home fire-safe improvements, until the home is sold to a new owner.

There are no quick and easy answers to our fire safety challenges, but creative thinking is needed instead of blaming nature and penalizing homeowners with fines and power outages.


[1] Several major insurance companies have ceased writing new homeowner policies in Mill Valley and other parts of Marin.


Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of Marin residents.