Sonoma County survivors hope to armor new homes against the next fire

As the rebuilding picks up pace in Sonoma County, one key thing thousands of fire survivors are seeking to address is how to safeguard their new homes from future infernos.

That means decisions about design options, building materials and safety systems such as fire sprinklers. For many, those choices have been made while still wrangling with insurers on settlements for fire losses, spelling greater uncertainty for most of those working on a budget.

Local architects have been among those advising home owners over how to incorporate designs that would safeguard their homes.

“Building codes now require you to be safer, with the types of materials and the way you seal the building up so the fire doesn’t get sucked in and start to burn from the inside,” said Santa Rosa architect Sara Harrison Woodfield. “We do roof vents so they won’t allow flames to get inside. The building materials themselves have to be more fire resistant. There’s stucco, or cement fiber siding.”

Other measures she likes to incorporate to protect buildings include keeping rock near the bottom of the building and ending the siding eight inches above the rock, making it harder for burning debris blown up against the building to catch a home on fire.

For high-risk zones, Woodfield also prefers designs that use what’s known as solid wall construction, with insulated concrete forms that are less prone to catching fire.

“I personally like solid wall construction or other things that are sturdier against fire,” she said. “There’s no wood in the walls to burn if a fire comes through, the building won’t be destroyed. The structure will stand.”

That doesn’t mean it’s safe to shelter in such a building during a fire, she added, noting that extreme heat can blow out windows, giving entry to outside flames.

Woodfield noted that most local contractors are more comfortable doing wood framing than using concrete-based designs.

Builder Jamen Brattin, of Cloverdale-based RB Contracting and Sons, said there’s still a lot of unanswered questions for contractors around access to plumbing and electrical after the concrete walls are built, as well as how well they will stand up to the heat generated by wildfires. If they should need to be demolished after a fire, his concern is that cleanup would be even more costly and time-consuming.

Some elements that make builds less fire prone, such as steel roofing, also come at a hefty price, making such options out of reach for many homeowners.

Other safety measures are now mandatory. All new homes built in Sonoma County are now required to have an indoor sprinkler system. Such systems can run from $4,000 to $30,000 depending upon square footage of the house and design complexity.

Attention to such mandates and other building choices can help to some degree when it comes to fire protection, said Santa Rosa architect Kevin Farrell.

“We talk a lot about new materials that will help in case of a fire,” he said. “For the most part, these are good measures and will go a long way to deter a ‘normal’ fire. Unfortunately as we saw, these measures are still no match for a firestorm like the Tubbs fire.”

Joel Myers, owner of Santa Rosa-based All about Fire Protection, has been busy ?installing sprinkler systems into new homes being rebuilt after the fires. He stressed that the sprinkler systems are there to give people time to get out of the building in the event of a fire.

“It’s life-saving, it’s not fire-suppression,” said Myers. “These are two different things. A commercial sprinkler system is for fire suppression, to put the fire out. A residential sprinkler system, which is what all these houses are getting, is for life safety. … It’s to buy somebody 10 minutes to get out of the house.”

The architecture and building fields have had a greater awakening in recent years amid California’

“This has brought fire into the mainstream conversation,” she said. “Even though we know these rules and we’ve been following them, and been fire-aware, never have we had this many buildings burn. It took everybody by surprise.

“I think we have to be even more vigilant. Some of it is forest management and some of it is the way we build houses. I think the industry is responding well and we are doing it smarter and stronger and I think we have a better chance controlling the damage. …We can’t always control the fire, but we can control the loss of life and the damage much better.”

Farrell’s family was directly affected when his daughter Jocelyn Farrell’s rental home was destroyed in the Tubbs fire.

“I’ve had some emotions come closer to the surface, especially seeing homeowners move back into their homes,” he said. Even so, that step comes with a greater sense of vulnerability, he said.

“There’s a heightened sense of the temporary nature of our possessions, including our homes.”

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