Wildfires are devastating. Recent news indicated that a fire burning in Northern California is now the largest in the state’s history. In fact, a September 10, 2020 quote from Cal Fire via Twitter said, “The 2020 fire season has been record-breaking, in not only the total amount of acres burned at just over 3 million but also 6 of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred this year.” This is not good news for insurance adjusters, claim managers, or frankly anyone leading an insurance company. This is especially discouraging given that 2017 and 2018 were already two of the three worst years on record for property losses, due in part to massive wildfires. Sadly, many families lost their homes and in turn, had to find temporary housing. As widespread fire claims continue to occur, insurance companies must identify all mitigation options. Building regulations, architecture, building materials, and community action, all play an important part in minimizing the risk of fire losses.
Most municipalities have building codes, which require that a typical home has various features that enhance safety and minimize the risk of loss. These requirements vary but generally ensure homes have basic safety features such as smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, electrical safety, adequate egress, etc. Because of recent fire losses, many local governments recognize the need for new guidelines to ensure the safety of people and homes. A recent Colorado State University study on wildfire damage has helped pave the way for future guidelines. The study highlights two factors as the primary determinants of a home’s ability to survive a wildfire. These are the quality of the defensible space around the home and the home’s structural ignitability.
Defensible space – the area around a home or other structure designed to reduce fire hazards. The below Colorado State University chart identifies some strategies associated with maximizing a home’s defensible space.
Structural Ignitability – the fire resistance associated with the materials used in the home. By using innovative, fire-resistant building materials, homeowners reduce the risk of damage to their homes in the event of a fire.
Several new building codes consider these two factors in establishing standards for homes with a fire risk. These standards include the following.
International Code Council’s International Wildland Urban Interface Code (IWUIC).
National Fire Protection Association’s Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire (Standard 1144).
California Building Code Chapter 7A—Materials and Construction Methods for Exterior Wildfire Exposure.
Fire Resistant Building Materials
In order to improve a home’s risk of structural ignitability, builders use fire-resistant materials. Below are a few examples of fire-resistant materials available to contractors.
Roof – use roofing materials labeled Class A, which are the most fire-resistant while avoiding wood shingles or chemically treated materials or coatings.
Eaves, soffits, fascias, and attic vents – enclosing or “boxing” them with noncombustible materials protect these areas of a structure, using non-combustible screening over attic vents.
Chimney – Installing a spark arrestor made from welded wire or woven wire mesh with openings less than ¼-inch wide at the top of the chimney
Exterior walls – should use cement, plaster, and stucco or concrete masonry such as stone, brick, or concrete block.
Exterior glass – use double-paned or tempered glass windows.
Basement and crawlspace – use of fireproof screening on roof vents to protect the vents in the basement or crawlspace.
Fire Resistant Architecture
One of the best ways to mitigate fire loss is for a builder to consider fire resistance in the overall design of a home. Smart architectural designs allow fire-resistant materials to work together in an effort to minimize the home’s fire risk. Below is a list of architectural strategies that reduce fire risk.
Detached garages – many rural fires begin as vehicle fires. In addition, garages and storage sheds often contain flammable materials, such as paint thinners and gasoline. Ensuring these structures remain detached help homeowners minimize their risk of loss.
Focus on glazing – insulated glass holds up longer than a single pane when faced with the heat of a wildfire. In general, smaller windowpanes survive better than big ones.
Focus on the roof – a steeper roof pitch has much better fire resistance than a flat one since burning embers roll off before they have time to burn through the roof. The home’s design must incorporate the use of class A, fire-rated material, such as standing seam, tile, slate, or cementitious composite roofing.
Walls – for siding, specify non-flammable material, such as fiber-cement siding, stone, brick, or stucco. To protect the base of the siding, consider putting a perimeter of crushed stone, so fire cannot burn easily adjacent to the house.
Decks – historically, most decks use wood, however, wood burns and provides ample fuel for fires. Ideally, the home’s design should incorporate composites, which do not burn as well as wood. If possible, architects use terracing and landscaping, which offer an alternative to a traditional deck. Consider metal screening around the crawlspace beneath the deck, to keep fire and embers out.
Community Fire Prevention
Community fire prevention permits experts in various communities to analyze risks and then work with community officials to establish intervention efforts in order to improve fire prevention efforts. Fire risks may vary significantly in different geographic communities. Without community efforts, each individual homeowner must figure out how to minimize their own risk of a fire loss. Community fire prevention helps plan for neighborhoods, fire departments, police response, and other prevention processes that individuals cannot control alone.
If recent trends continue, homeowners can expect a steady increase in their fire risks, especially those related to wildfires. As a result, insurance companies must take notice and find ways to equip homeowners, contractors, and builders with mitigation tools to minimize a home’s fire risk. Massive wildfires end up displacing many families, which in causes temporary housing needs to dramatically increase in areas where much of the real-estate has been lost to fire or weather. By understanding the building materials and architectural strategies that work to reduce a home’s fire risk, insurers can reduce potential claim payments. Insurers can also work alongside community fire prevention efforts in order to help improve overall fire safety and improve building regulations.