A push for wildfire-resilient homes

(AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flames consume a home on Triangle Rd. as the Oak Fire burns in Mariposa County, Calif., on Saturday, July 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Wildfires are a significant and increasing threat to our nation. Based on statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center, as of Aug. 2, a more than 5.7 million acres have burned, already surpassing the 10-year average of 3.6 million acres. Yet, the wildfire season peak is still to come, with forecasted higher-than-normal fire potential, due to the historic drought conditions, above-average temperatures and below-normal precipitation.

Recently, the White House amplified its efforts to address the growing wildfire crisis and launched multiple initiatives with a primary focus to prevent and minimize ignition of wildfires and increase our nation’s response capacity. There are measures homeowners and the building industry can take to better prepare homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

Homeowners are not powerless against wildfire

While no home is fireproof, a home constructed with mitigation measures can limit the catastrophic reach of wildfire, as it approaches neighborhoods. Building codes, often referred as the I-Codes developed by the International Code Council (ICC), are the basis of laws and regulations in communities across the United States. These codes establish the minimum requirements necessary to provide building safety for the public. ICC first promulgated the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC) in 2003, and the latest edition was published in 2021. The IWUIC establishes the baseline requirements with constructing wildfire-resilient homes, generally including non-combustible roofing and fire-rated cladding, glazing, as well as underfloor protection; assurance of water supply; defensible space; and, in some places, residential sprinklers.

Based on the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves study, complying with the IWUIC is one of the important mitigation measures that homeowners may take, and on a national average, it could save $4 for every $1 of additional construction and maintenance cost.

In June, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) launched Wildfire Prepared Home, a beyond-code mitigation program that allows homeowners to show they’ve taken a set of science-based actions to meaningfully reduce their home’s wildfire risk. Wildfire Prepared Home is the first-ever designation program and includes built-in homeowner education, a suite of science-backed mitigation actions, and a verification process, all distinguishing a property from those that are partially or unmitigated against wildfire. In short, it offers a chance to return home after a fire.

Construction cost and financial incentives for wildfire-resilient homes

Where the threat of wildfire is high, the need for statewide codes exists. Of the top five states with the greatest wildfire risk as identified by Verisk — California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Idaho — only California has a statewide code, and it only applies in areas identified as “high risk” on maps developed in 2008 that are in the process of being updated.

Although Colorado has a myriad of state and local regulations, a statewide and uniformly enforced wildfire-focused code does not exist. Likewise, Idaho does not have a statewide code, but a number of its individual counties have adopted NFPA standards.

Cost is one of the important factors that communities have to consider in code adoption decisions. When a home is built to be more resilient against environmental hazards, additional expenses can be expected. The cost of wildfire resilient measures can vary, depending upon the location, risk exposure, building size and features, as well as other factors. According to a report co-authored by IBHS and Headwaters Economics, it may add as little as $2,800 to the cost of building a new wildfire-resistant home in California. Using estimates from NIBS’ Mitigation Saves Study, retrofitting or upgrading an existing home can be more costly, ranging from $4,000 to $80,000. While every dollar matters in a family budget, delaying these wildfire-resistant actions only shifts the burden to the future homeowner who will, undoubtedly, need to address the survivability of their home later.

Following the Colorado Marshall fire rebuild effort, a series of innovative financial incentives are available for homeowners, including incentives from private energy and solar companies, as well as potential incentives from government programs.

On a national scope, we can help lenders explore financial products that support resilient buildings, as NIBS has done in partnership with Fannie Mae.

This approach can help developers properly evaluate risk and recognize the value of resilient buildings, collaborate with insurers to promote insurance programs that reward safer structures, and support communities to develop layered mitigation investment packages.

Homeowners and public policymakers also need consistent, science-based and verifiable ways to reduce wildfire risk, such as IBHS’ Wildfire Prepared Home resiliency tool. The program’s technical standard and other materials can be converted into ordinances; incorporated into grant programs and other financial incentives; and used to educate homeowners on the system of mitigation actions that can help drive down their risk. This science-based solution is of particular value to local communities, which bear nearly half (46 percent) of the long-term costs of wildfire.

The wildland-urban interface fire situation differs from flood, earthquake or wind. It requires a more systematic approach, as the likelihood of a house suffering 100 percent loss in a fire situation is much higher, compared with other natural disasters. This issue has only been systematically addressed in the past few decades. The building industry will need to keep developing science-based actions that could meaningfully reduce a home’s wildfire risk, while also better communicating the values of wildfire-resilient homes and letting the market recognize and demand it.

Jiqiu (JQ) Yuan, Ph.D., PE, PMP, is the executive director of the Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council (MMC) and Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC) of the National Institute of Building Science (NIBS).

Anne Cope, Ph.D., PE, is the chief engineer with the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), and she serves as vice chair of the NIBS MMC.

Tags Building Climate change Construction Fire Homes Natural disaster Wildfire
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