They did the same mistake with fuel buildup years ago, but it seems the transition to new system was much quicker.
The real estate market forces cheap wooden houses. It is not tradition or earthquakes... I feel here in California there is dangerous complacency regarding earthquakes (https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/02/03/america-i...). People fear them but the rarity has transformed the fear into wishful thinking and avoidance.
Not criticizing, mind you, since clay shingles are still supported by wooden beams in older detached homes and those go out too in forest fires (which we also have, on a yearly basis and with tragic results) - I just don’t get the rationale for small homes to be built out of wood these days - is it cost?
(Edit for typos)
(They're also quite a bit cheaper.)
Aesthetically, I dislike it because I have a taste for very solid, permanent things, but if you live in California, stud-wall ("stick built") construction with plywood shear walls over them is really the only choice.
They say things like 'it's a wooden frame with a brick facade, right?' or 'I'm sure the supporting structure isn't brick.' No it's brick. It's all brick. The walls on all sides in every room are about 30cm of solid brick with plaster directly on top. Even the internal ones.
If you want to run a new light cable or something you'll be using a hammer and chisel to make a channel to put it in.
Also houses made from brick have a lot more damage in an earthquake - the mortar cracks and the structural integrity is lost.
That said, it was mostly older brick premises, chimneys, and facades that caused deaths. "Falling masonry killed 40 people in Christchurch's February 2011 earthquake"
The only advantage is cost and speed of execution, they call them McMansions for a reason.
So if the panelised timber frame superstructure for an rectangular two storey house of 150m2 is approximately 14 metric tonnes, you're locking up 7 tonnes of carbon for the life of the building (minus of course the carbon emitted to plant, prune, fell, transport, mill, treat, get the wood to site, install it etc.).
If you can use more timber through the construction, all the more effect.
It takes pinus radiata about 25 years to reach maturity. Then it can be turned into buildings/ houses, and the carbon locked up in that structure, which can be e.g in the city or suburbs- somewhere there will never be suitable for forestry.
And then the forest can be replanted and the virtuous cycle begins again.
tldr; locking carbon up in timber gives more flexibility than just relying on standing forests.
I'm not sure how it's done in the UK with brick buildings though. It seems like if you needed much insulation you'd end up with an inner wall and brick facade.
Some medium-rise blocks of flats use steel frame floor plates from concrete central pillars with external cladding approach but most new houses are brick.
Also the US climate is far more varied than the UK's so in some biomes wood makes sense.
My home state of Idaho (the south) is largely cheatgrass, tumbleweeds, and sagebrush. None of which are useful for construction. All extremely flammable most of the year.
This was such a fascinating article. Classic government intervention, focusing on large projects that are ineffective and not backed by current science instead of direct interaction with the problem door to door in lots of smaller expenditures that would actually be effective.
My childhood home burned in the Oakland hills fire - and it had a tile roof -- so roofing material is not enough. Having a defensible space also seems key.
On a related note - I watched a youtube video on a woman driving up and down the streets of Paradise to show people if their homes survived. The homes that survived all seem to be surrounded by a watered lawn. This reinforces maintaining a defensible space is key to survival.
Removing fuel from on and around your home is a good idea regardless. Beyond that, I don't think most of us are qualified to guess on the fire behavior in Paradise (or Redding, or Napa, or Santa Rosa...).
I will say that of the buildings still standing in Paradise, a disproportionate number of them seem to be brand new construction (<5 years old).
Likewise, most of the new construction was built on the ridge (Skyway) between Paradise and Chico, which is primarily California live oak and grassland.
A huge mitigating factor in all of this however, is the level of poverty in and around the (former?) town of Paradise.
Not sure how well this has been represented in the media, but Paradise as a community is poor as shit. There are just about -shit_all- jobs (outside the hospital) in that area that don't involve selling cigarettes and lotto tickets. Paradise, Concow, Magalia, pretty much some of the poorest areas of California I know of. Many of the families in that area lived on properties that had been built over several generations, handed down from gold-rush era mining claims. These aren't people who keep insurance on anything. Nor are they the kind of people who concern themselves with maintaining a defensible space around their homes.
As the article points out, there are some interesting areas where there are green or just lightly singed trees surrounding homes that are totally gone. Certainly there are also a lot of trees that clearly went up like torches. There was also a place where the fire came halfway up the front yard and then just ... stopped. If I remember right, that yard was mostly bare dirt though with just a light layer of pine needles, which don't burn well. Every place around it was completely gone, and I mean completely. They had a neighbor's house all of about twenty feet from their house. Neighbor's house is just dust, the wall on this house wasn't even darkened.
The new construction I was talking about were individual buildings or, in one case, a small series of retail spaces. Everything surrounding them was just ash.
So there may be some merit to what the article's saying. It kind of explains some of the oddities I've seen. I didn't get to survey the area in detail before it was destroyed though.
I've been out there one full day so far on the ground in a SAR team, and I'm scheduled to be out there again Sunday through Wednesday in overhead. I wish I could be out there more but my day job is being a bit difficult right now.
I just got back from Butte Co - the ignition point in Pulga wasn’t deep forest, but grasses, shrubs and forest patches littered with downed and dead woody debris. Seems like a big fuel break by Pentz Road could have helped. It wouldn’t have saved Magalia and Concow but would have given Paradise residents more time to evacuate.
Long term you need regular controlled fires, and no one planting explosive trees (eucalyptus being a good Bay Area example of terrible ideas)
Also, if your house is on fire and firefighters need in thru the roof, steel makes it harder for them to get in.
Bonus: clay shingles are the longest lasting material you can cover a roof with, and you can repair it by sections. It also looks way better than the crap we use to cover roofs in the USA.
It’s also the case that the article focused mostly on preventing home fires caused by forest fires but then the article itself shows this is a very rare phenomenon. Not exactly something that should be a core focus in the first place.
That massive fire in Yellowstone way back in 1988 was when this new thinking set in. From then on the Forest Service could be blamed for poor management and allowing this kindling to build up, resulting in truly catastrophic fires. It was a seductive way of thinking and whilst everyone was thinking it the basic lessons of The Great Fire of London were ignored.
In The Great Fire of London the problem was the wind and embers being blown across town to start new fires. This overwhelmed the authorities of the time. The solution was to build houses with non-flammable materials. In that way an ember landing on a house would not cause another fire to start up.
The other detail of note was the use of parapets. In London roofs are always behind a parapet, so, if a house or property does go up in flames then the roof will not fall off the house but be contained within the four walls. In this way adjacent properties, e.g. across the street, don't go up in flames too.
Nowadays building codes in London expect a property to not go up in flames even if the adjacent house is fully ablaze. This is buying time, clearly there is expectation that the adjoining fire gets put under control within a few hours. It doesn't seem that in California there is this thinking, which is understandable if you do have lots of garden and some distance to the adjacent house. But I bet that the first people to populate London thought that way too, they never imagined the pasture land next to their house would become a housing estate some centuries later.
Another small matter is that of sprinkler systems. Architects do not like sprinklers even though they do a fantastic job of suppressing fire. They also design atriums with no vents in the roof specifically there to let hot air out if there is a fire. This is considered old fashioned thinking by the entire architecture business, they check the checkboxes on building codes at minimal cost and don't think from first principles about how to make a building work within its environment.
Also, London is a different place than California. Buildings in California aren't built with wood for no reason; they do it to withstand earthquakes. There's a big difference between just fireproofing a building and simultaneously fire- and earthquake-proofing a building - the latter is far more difficult and expensive.
I don't see that many of the lessons from the Great Fire of London apply to the problem in California.
My general point regarding the Great Fire of London being that fire prevention has been worked out a long time ago. Fire prevention with earthquakes is actually well worked out too. Despite American exceptionalism California is not special. Half of mankind lives in an earthquake zone. The reason for this is that the most fertile land happens to be in earthquake zones, you need some volcanic goodliness to make it so.
I accept the point made by the lumber lobby that wood is a great material for building houses. Wood can be marketed as fantastically earthquake proof if your quarterly sales matter more than the dreaded Spotted Owl. But is wood really what you want for a house that is an actual home? To last for generations? What if you live in Italy where earthquakes happen but there is no lumber lobby just up the road?
Time is money and convenience is king. It's the American Dream. There is no need to be encumbered by things like sensible building codes if there is no past and no imaginably sustainable future, just the urgent, dramatic now.
The culture of consumerism plays its part too. If you are a property speculator in a drought-stricken earthquake zone where fires ravage the countryside every single summer (unless it happens to be an el-Nino year when flooding takes over) then it could be hard to find a market for homes built to last for generations.
Why do that when you can flog a slapped together McMansion with double garage side portions for much more profit? It only has to last until the next boom/bust inflection, savings + loan scam or catastrophic 'act of god'. Hollywood's back lot sets are more substantial.
I very much like Californian vernacular architecture however I am far more likely to be taking pictures of the scenery rather than of any house when in California. The truly beautiful houses with character are outnumbered by seen-it-before identikit dwellings or those McMansions that have no taste whatsoever. I have actually got lost in several Californian built up areas due to the lack of unique landmarks. I haven't had that problem anywhere else, even Soviet era centrally planned housing can be navigated without feeling like you are stuck in some maze.
In summary, fires don't care if they are in California or anywhere else. The short-term-ist consumerist outlook that goes with the territory is the problem, not some unique combo of fires and earthquakes.
That's a weird thing to say: there are definitely places that are more fire prone than others.
But the Paradise fire moved so fast, and so tall, I don’t think anything stood a chance. Look at, for instance, the Safeway in the town — completely demolished.
Flew over the area the other day — got a first hand look at the smoke from above which we’ve all been breathing in down in the South Bay all week; tragic, devastating event.
Edit: primarily talking about the stuff related to landscape and building design. I’m in favor of controlled burns, but it’s not trivial to start doing it given just how much fuel is built up in California.
Eh, I would disagree. Pull up google maps and drop in street view. This town, in the middle of fire country, is filled with pine trees. Many of them have ladder fuels under them. Tall fires happen because of crown fires.
Sure there's a cost to this but is it really so much different that having sprinklers in high rise residential buildings?
It's high time California realizes building wood framed boxes with walls of compressed paper with no defensible space between the wilderness and the houses is a BAD idea and we start building with more sensible materials like concrete, bricks and stone like Europe has been doing for centuries - because it works.
Of course putting pine trees beside houses in fire zones is a bad idea too.
Also, there's plenty of earthquake resistant techniques you can apply to masonry. Mediterranean houses are all built with steel-reinforced concrete and bricks even now and there's all kinds of seismic activity over there.
That depends on the area...
I am a volunteer firefighter in Marin County (basically San Francisco) and we do defensible space consultations all summer and the paid firefighters of Marin County do indeed drive around all summer writing fix-it sheets for homeowners that are in the wildland-urban interface.