Fire Blast

West
Friday, September 4, 2009
.
The fire this time. (Photo: Mary Beth Trama)

The fire this time. (Photo: Mary Beth Trama)

Among other scary lessons, the latest L.A. fire reminds us why it’s important to stick to a small footprint. As of this writing, the Station Fire in Los Angeles County has destroyed 64 homes, three commercial buildings, and 27 outbuildings, and has burned through at least 145,000 acres of land. In the midst of the blaze stands the historical Mt. Wilson Observatory, which was in danger from the nearby flames, but now appears to be safe.

Set by an arsonist, this year’s fire has turned into the area’s largest and most unpredictable blaze due to the absence of the strong winds that usually cause fires to spread, well, like wild. This time round, the intense summer heat and dry brush, built up over several years, were enough.

With the fire only 42 percent contained, the fallout is still unknown, but for those intent on rebuilding, the general message is already clear enough: “Houses with proper clearance, construction, and fire-resistant materials can survive,” said L.A. County fire inspector Mathew Levesque. He recommends that homes have a clearance of at least 100 to 200 feet to keep fires at bay.

Dennis Allen Associates, a commercial and residential builder in Santa Barbara that specializes in rebuilding homes damaged or destroyed by fire, wants to see even more clearance, after its analysis of 40 homes in the Santa Barbara area after the 2008 Tea and 2009 Jesusita fires. Company vice president Ian Cronshaw references a Santa Barbara home on West Mountain Drive which survived the Tea Fire wholly intact. “The owner had cleared 250 to 300 feet around the home, and landscaped it with agaves and cacti,” says Cronshaw. Although the house was situated on a knoll, where the wind could easily pick up flames and engulf it, it is thought to have survived due to its appropriate clearances and fire-resistant stucco siding, metal roof, and slab-on-grade construction (no foundation vents to allow burning embers into the home).

But Levesque also emphasizes that in these circumstances, one can do everything to no avail. “Sometimes it’s just chance,” he said.

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