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Fire-Resistant Green Building

The following is an excerpt from When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency [1] by Matthew Stein [2]. It has been adapted for the Web.
In October 1993, when a vicious wildfire broke out in Laguna Beach, a southern California beach town, firefighter John Henderson was called down from his home in the Sierras of northern California to fight the blaze. The combination of extremely dangerous fire conditions, brought on by three consecutive drought years coupled with 60 to 70 mph hot and dry Santa Ana winds, quickly whipped the fire into an unstoppable conflagration. When John rounded a corner on the Pacific Coast Highway, just north of Laguna Beach, he saw a sight that he will never forget. He and his partner watched the firestorm rush down the dry hills toward the ocean. The heat of the firestorm was so intense that, even after blowing across four lanes of pavement, it was hot enough to ignite a mile-long stretch of wooden telephone poles on the ocean side of the road. From a distance, he said they looked like a string of matchsticks stuck in the sand, igniting one after the other until there were perhaps a hundred telephone poles burning at once.
If current scientific predictions of global warming prove anywhere near correct, then the horrific 2007 fires outside of San Diego and the 1993 Laguna Beach fires are simply a preview of future wildfires that will endanger hundreds of thousands of homes in the coming years. Whether you are a homeowner wishing to improve the fire resistance of your current dwelling or are planning to build a new home, there are a number of actions you can take to improve the chances that your home will survive a local wildfire.

Lessons from the 1993 Laguna Fire

(Adapted from “Fire-Resistant Details: Studying the Houses That Survived the 1993 Laguna Beach Fire Storm Yields Lessons in Building to Withstand the Heat,” by John Underwood, Fine Home Building.com) My fireman friends tell me that when they enter a neighborhood, they take mental notes about which homes have maintained a defensible space and which have not. They don’t waste their time focusing on homes without a defensible space, but spend their time defending homes where they stand a decent chance of success, while keeping a watchful eye on nearby flames. These are brave guys, risking their necks where most of us would not go, but they have wives and kids––so when a vicious firestorm gets dangerously close, they simply have to leave the neighborhood and let nature take its course.

Green and Fire Resistant

There are a number of “green building” systems that are inherently fire resistant. Basically, if a system is earth or concrete based, it is very fire resistant. Also, if you fill the wall with foam or straw to eliminate dead air spaces and the chimney effect, and sheath the wall with stucco, earthen plasters, or cement board, even if it is wood framed it will have good fire resistance. Do your best to make your roof, eaves, and decks fire resistant too, since your home will only be as fire resistant as its weakest link. The following is a partial list of fire-resistant green building modes of construction: