Rebuilding Homes and Structures After Wildfire

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After wildfires sweep through a wilderness, it can take years for Mother Nature to restore balance. When wildfires sweep through a community, we tend to move a bit faster in picking up the pieces. It’s natural for people to want to rebuild quickly to restore their daily lives.

Despite the urge to rush rebuilding, it’s essential to do it the right way — even if that means spending a bit more time. Hastily rebuilding structures with cheap or inappropriate materials will eventually negate any benefits these structures offered in the short term, especially in regions where wildfire is likely to strike again.

There are a few important things to keep in mind when rebuilding homes and structures after a wildfire to ensure they’re stable, safe, and effective in the long term. Whether you are a contractor helping to remodel a fire-damaged neighborhood, or a homeowner working with a professional to rebuild your own home, here are some of the things you must consider.

What Happens After a Wildfire?

The recent wildfires in Sonoma County show an extreme example of the damage wildfires can do to habitated areas. Last October, fires ravaged the wine country — completely demolishing over 4,500 residential properties and 700 plus commercial properties, while partially destroying more than 10,000 residential properties. The total damage topped $3 million of insured losses.

In dry, hot climates like Sonoma County, wildfires are the norm. To a certain extent, drought and fire are expected each season. The intensity and damage of these natural occurrences, on the other hand, are harder to predict or control.

After a particularly bad wildfire, houses are either levelled or severely smoke damaged. Trees and shrubs are destroyed. The soil itself is less stable, and erosion becomes problematic. Solving these problems means adapting to the increased risks and challenges they pose.

How to Rebuild After Wildfire

They say history repeats itself. In regions like northern California, that’s a literal truth when it comes to wildfires. No one doubts whether they’ll happen again — instead, the most important question on many designers’ minds is how to avoid a repeat of the destruction wildfires like those in Sonoma County caused.

Use Fire Resistant Materials & Design

An important step in rebuilding a safe home after a wildfire is to use fire resistant materials. Studies show that over 80% of homes lost in wildfires are due to firebrands, or embers, landing close to a home and igniting something on the property. Builders should use noncombustible materials — popular examples include steel, concrete, or glass — for roofs, exteriors, decks and walkways.

Even while the materials may be noncombustible, it’s important to build in a way that discourages firebrands from igniting other materials. This means using fire resistant design to incorporate best practices that reduce the likelihood of fire spreading; such as minimizing vents, making sure gutters don’t accumulate combustible debris, or closing gaps in garage doors.

Another important design goal is to minimize the house’s reliance on or connection to fuels, to reduce fire starting and spreading potential.

Incorporate Environmentally Conscious Design

It’s intrinsically environmentally-friendly to build structures that will resist future wildfires, because it means there will be less destruction, waste, and pollution in the long run.

To make your building greener from the get-go, use sustainable materials and biodegradable materials wherever possible. Explore alternative sources to combustible fuels. When rebuilding, make sure you’re not doing any damage to the soil which may already be facing erosion following a fire. Similarly, try to leave any remaining plants to regrow.

Think Beyond the Structure

Responsible design goes beyond the home, to the property as a whole. In a region where fires jump and spread quickly, reducing the opportunities for expanding is essential.

Aim to build your house farther apart from other structures, or from natural features like trees or shrubs. This can help reduce the number of opportunities for the fire to jump on or into your home.

The type of greenery you plant makes a difference, too. Native grasses in regions like Sonoma County often burn quickly but not very hot, making them a reasonably safe landscaping option. Some exotic plants — especially those that are oily or resinous like pines or Eucalyptus — are highly flammable and dangerous in dry, hot regions. As with rebuilding, replant responsibly.

Making Communities Safer and Stronger

For those who don’t live in wildfire regions, the decision of homeowners to rebuild in the face of another wildfire may seem reckless. But for those who call these places home, the decision to stay is usually a natural one. In fact, over 60% of new homes built since 1990 are built near fire-prone regions.

Wildfires may be one of the more dangerous aspects of the natural environment, but there are risks inherent in every region of the world — from blizzards to tsunamis, and more. It’s all about designing and protecting our homes carefully to ensure we are prepared for the harsher sides of nature. For those who live in fire-prone regions, this includes not only constructing safe homes and buildings, but also maintaining landscaping and fire hazards on your property and having home fire protection equipment on-hand.

The only way to move forward responsibly is to make sure that any building or rebuilding acknowledges the real risk of fire, and adapts accordingly. With a little foresight and a lot of caution, builders, designers, and residents alike can be a part of the solution.

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