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Designing Houses to Survive Wildfires

Houses that aren't vulnerable to embers blowing in the wind, could save the government and homeowners millions.
August 6, 2018, 7am PDT | Casey Brazeal | @northandclark
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Glen Ellen, California

Fire damage can seem random. Sometimes houses very close to each other suffer very different consequences from wildfires. Fire expert Jack Cohen encountered the kinds of hazard presented by building materials while investigating ways to combat the spread of wildfires. "People were calling in about houses on fire long before the fire front ever reached their neighborhoods," 99 Percent Invisible reports. It turned out the culprit behind these burning homes were embers carried by the winds landing on flammable wooden shingles.

While not using a flammable housing material would seem to be common sense, Cohen was able to codify the impact of design choices. Cohen's research lead to the conclusion that more emphasis should be put on building fire-resistant properties and less on fighting fires.

"In other words, if structures near fire-prone areas were designed and maintained to withstand fire, we might not need to fight some wildfires at all," 99 Percent Invisible reports. Cohen's argument is further bolstered by the sometimes counterproductive outcomes of putting out wildfires. Because where forests that have not had a burn for many years sometimes become tinder boxes of flammable material, meaning sometimes it would be better to allow a controlled burn to take place than to fight all fires.

"Last year, the federal government spent more than 2 billion dollars fighting fires and just a small fraction of that on prevention and mitigation efforts," 99 Percent Invisible writes. Shifting some of those resources might improve safety for people and property.

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Published on Tuesday, July 31, 2018 in 99 Percent Invisible
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