Restrictions on where and how to build

Even when fires threaten homes and no help is in sight, all is not lost. There is much homeowners can do to prepare and protect their property in the face of wildfire, beginning with  clearing trees, brush and wood piles around their houses,.

The manner of construction and the types of materials used can help give structures a fighting chance against the advance of flames. California building codes for new homes require forgoing wooden roofs and decks in favor of fire-resistant materials, among other things.

Among the actions homeowners can take to protect their property:

  • Install double-paned windows.
  • Detach garages and storage sheds from the main house.
  • Put ember-resistant vents in attics and elsewhere.
  • Consider fire-resistant cladding such as stucco or stone.

There are, however, some places where the risk is so great that fire scientists say homes simply should not be built there—even in a state where housing shortages have reached crisis levels. In California from 1990 to 2010, an estimated 45 percent of new housing units were constructed in the “wildland-urban interface”—where suburbia and rural towns back up onto wild, and combustible, landscapes. With more residences sprouting on the edge of wildlands or deep in narrow canyons, fires become an inevitability and firefighters have a tougher and larger territory to defend.

What to do? State lawmakers have already extended some state restrictions to local lands, and some have talked about possible rebates or other subsidies for residents who cannot afford to “harden” their homes. But essentially legislators are grappling with an unpalatable reality: Require even more extensive and expensive upgrades to existing homes, or ban building altogether in some areas. That discussion is as potentially explosive as the fires themselves.