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Moving From Suggestions To Mandates To Cut Wildfire Risk For Rural Homes

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Developer Chris Heftel, right, and homeowner Mike Thompson discuss wildfire safety measures in the River Bluff Ranch community north of Spokane.

Some Northwest cities, counties and private developers are going beyond the minimums in the state building codes to reduce wildfire risk. They're banning shingle roofs and requiring fire-resistant siding. They're also making homeowners mind their landscaping.

Developer Chris Heftel made an interesting choice when he converted a forested hillside and grazing land north of Spokane into a gated community called River Bluff Ranch. There are websites and brochures full of advice for how to build in wildfire country like this. In this development though, the tips are not merely advice, they're the rule -- enforced by covenants on the properties.

"If it was voluntary, you'd have some compliant, some non-compliant,” Heftel said. “The non-compliant homes put everybody else at risk."

Heftel pointed to lane of custom homes in the development that shared common features such as asphalt composition roofs.

"Almost impossible to set those on fire from an ember or something coming down and landing on them as opposed to say, a shake roof,” he said.

Home siding also has to be nonflammable or fire-resistant, typically accomplished with fiber-cement board such as HardiePlank accented with stone veneer. Wood siding treated with a fire-resistant stain is sometimes another option.

Landscaping is the other critical piece.

"It's not just the construction materials, but it's also maintaining the defensible space around your home,” Heftel said.

Individual homeowners must keep their yards "lean and green" - to paraphrase. Many installed a rockery ring around their foundations.

While these combined measures can't guarantee a fire-proof neighborhood, Heftel said they would affect a wildfire's behavior around the homes.

"It's going to burn much less hot and probably travel more slowly,” he said. “Easier for fire responders to get it under control.”

‘A good selling point'

Two other Northwest developments taking this approach to be safer from the start include the big Suncadia Resort near Roslyn, Washington, and The Tree Farm subdivision outside Bend, Oregon. Suncadia's construction guidelines additionally require indoor sprinklers in new residential homes.

River Bluff Ranch resident Mike Thompson said "Firewise" features were on his mind when he and his wife were house hunting.

"Knowing that the developer, Chris, had gone through and done limbing [trimmed tree limbs up from the ground] and cleaned out the underbrush and done some of those things to make it more protected was definitely something for us that was a good selling point,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he doesn't think he paid "all that much more" for his fire-resistant, ridgetop ranch home. The retired fire chief now heads the development's homeowners association, which provides ongoing enforcement of those covenants.

Developing new fire codes

So there's a case where a developer and homeowners are imposing rules on themselves. A slowly growing number of Northwest cities and counties are applying similar rules to everyone who builds in wildfire prone zones.

Former Kittitas County Commissioner Alan Crankovich got the ball rolling for his central Washington county to adopt what is known as the Wildland Urban Interface Code.

"You are asking to build a home in an area where there has traditionally not been [one],” Crankovich said. “So now, to me to allow you to do that there comes a personal responsibility to provide some protection for yourself as well as the surrounding landowners."

Crankovich, who described himself as "an advocate for property rights," said a 2012 wildfire that destroyed 61 homes in his county underscored why the county commission adopted the stricter code on a unanimous vote.

California years ago led the way on this. Yakima and Douglas counties in central Washington and Jackson County in southern Oregon have also added wildfire protection rules to their building codes. The cities of Wenatchee and Boise have too, motivated by experience with destructive fires. Cowlitz County, Washington, looks to be next in line to act. Bend, Oregon, and surrounding Deschutes County are also taking a hard look at this.

But that leaves far more Pacific Northwest counties not on board. Earlier this year a firefighters association asked the Washington Legislature to make a model wildfire code apply statewide. But realtors, homebuilders and counties snuffed out that proposal with the argument that a "one size fits all" solution is inappropriate.

"It's a real tough issue to take head on," recently departed Kittitas County Commissioner Gary Berndt observed. "You can't do it without it costing money."

Berndt praised the new codes, even though they add cost to development. But it's not a silver bullet. The county fire marshal only inspects new homes for compliance with the wildfire ordinance once prior to occupancy and then it is up to the homeowner to maintain the Firewise features.

"Without the ability to re-visit homes many owners will not continue to maintain defensible space," Berndt testified to a Congressional field hearing last year.

And then there are all those older homes scattered in woods, on hillsides and in sagebrush country.

"There are many pre-existing developments from many years ago within the forested areas of western Kittitas County that are very vulnerable to a catastrophic fire," Berndt said. "The access is often substandard for emergency responders, water supplies minimal at best, there are overhead power lines, and many development Covenants, Codes and Restrictions that do not allow vegetation to be removed without homeowners association approval."

State and federal grants have provided some support for voluntary community projects to improve defensible space around homes and clean up greenbelts. At the Congressional field hearing, Berndt had a friendly ear for his plea to overhaul federal wildfire spending so that fire prevention funds don't get taken away every year to pay for suppression cost overruns. That call has been repeatedly renewed by Western lawmakers this summer, but the budgeting change has yet to be made.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.