Connections Between Wildfire Prevention/Resilience and Environmental Sustainability

In recent years, the threat of wildfires has increased in the United States due to the impact of climate change, especially in arid areas such as California. For instance, the Camp Fire in 2018 in California was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history and the deadliest in the United States since 1918. Due to this increased threat, there has been greater discussion around how best to mitigate fire risk to protect homes, families, and communities. Since the trend of worsening wildfires is directly related to climate change, it is important to incorporate discussions of environmental sustainability of communities into these discussions. This document offers ideas for individual homeowners and local communities to increase their fire resiliency, and discusses options to also improve environmental sustainability or tradeoffs that exist between fire resiliency and environmental concerns.

What can individual homeowners / neighborhoods do?

  1. Create buffer zones, use fire resistant/non-combustible materials for fences and barriers, and have proper spacing between trees and shrubs.

Image illustrating buffer zones from the National Fire Protection Association

Image illustrating buffer zones from the National Fire Protection Association

The Home Ignition Zone is broken down into three zones. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states that Zone 1 (called the immediate zone, up to 5 ft. around the home) should be a non-combustible area and that it is the most important zone in which to take steps to reduce the home’s vulnerability. Homeowners should clean any debris from the home, repair any broken or missing roof tiles, windows, or screens, remove plants containing resins, oils, or waxes away from wall exteriors, use rocks instead of mulch for landscaping, remove any leaves or pine needles close to the home, and move firewood away from the home. Headwaters Economics suggests that using landscaping fabric can reduce the growth of weeds, minimizing the maintenance required by the homeowner. A biodegradable alternative to landscaping fabric (that also might emit less greenhouse gas if burned by wildfire) is to put down multiple layers of newspaper or cardboard underneath rocks or mulch, although they’ll need to be replaced every so often.

Although removing plants will reduce a home’s exposure to long term radiant heat or flame contact, less-combustible/fire-resistant plants do exist and there are also many benefits to including a rich plant life as part of your landscaping. Plants absorb carbon dioxide, producing oxygen in the air and, importantly, storing carbon in the soil. The process of storing carbon, called carbon sequestration, on a large scale can help reduce the effects of climate change. Choosing to include rich plantlife as part of your landscaping could contribute to reducing the effects of climate change — the reason why wildfires have become so widespread and dangerous in recent years. Furthermore, including plants in your landscaping can help rebuild organic matter lost in areas affected by fires and the storing of carbon by plants improves soil water retention. Soil with high water retention will not burn as easily.

Image demonstrating tree / shrub spacing from the National Fire Protection Association

Image demonstrating tree / shrub spacing from the National Fire Protection Association

The benefits of including rich plant life as part of your home’s landscaping must be balanced with fire resilience considerations. Using less-combustible plants in Zones 2 and 3, maintaining vegetation, and spacing trees and shrubs in Zones 2 and 3 with fire protection in mind can reduce fire risk (see picture below). Less-combustible plants are those with high moisture content, high salt content and low volatile oil in their leaves. Typically, plants with broad, fleshy leaves and those with dense foliage, rather than open, airy crowns, are preferable. Maintaining a well-kept area, such as removing all ground litter and debris, removing dead plant/vegetative debris, cutting lawns and grasses to 4 inches (recommended by the NFPA), and pruning trees and shrubs will reduce the risk of a fire spreading to the home. The type of plants a homeowner includes in their landscaping will depend on individual fire risk, features of the home and yard, and preferences.

Additionally, using metal or hardwood for fencing or building concrete barriers between buildings on property and reduce the risk of fire spreading to the home.

2. Use fire resistant/non-combustible materials for roof and seal home around roof.

The roof is arguably the most vulnerable part of the home due to its large surface area. Plugging gaps between the roof and the home (in the eaves) and using non-combustible ember guards reduces risk of embers entering the home and increases energy efficiency. Using Class A fire-rated materials such as asphalt fiberglass composition, concrete, metal, or clay for roofing material is recommended to comply with codes from the National Fire Protection Association and the International Wildland-Urban Interface Codes. And while you’re changing up your roofing material, consider making your roof white which will cool your home and improve energy efficiency.

White Rooftops; Images from Green Cross Australia, Build It Back Green Guide.

3. Use fire resistant / non-combustible materials for deck and build deck area with fire resilience in mind.

Clean out vegetation from underneath the deck to create a non-combustible area underneath. This reduces the chance of fire spreading to your deck. Consider building your deck with larger spaces in between planks and using less-combustible material such as composite boards, fire-retardant-treated wood and other ignition-resistant material. Depending on how the wood is sourced, wood is the most environmentally friendly material. Usually, though, in order to make wood fire-resistant it must be treated with chemicals, making it less environmentally friendly. There are some companies that manufacture composite boards using recycled plastic material, such as Trex and Fiberon. And Fiberon states that it was named an Eco-Leader by Green Builder magazine in 2015 because it uses locally sourced recyclable material, uses bi-coastal manufacturing to reduce its carbon footprint, and does not use chemicals in its products. But these composite deck materials can never be recycled themselves. The best option would be to reuse these decking materials but there are no established programs (from my research) to help consumers do that.

Non-combustible area underneath deck; Image from NFPA Wildfire Research Fact Sheets, originally from Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety

Hempcrete; Image from Hempitecture company

Hempcrete; Image from Hempitecture company

4. Use fire-resistant / non-combustible materials for building materials, siding, insulation, windows, and doors and seal doors and windows.

Tempered glass, dual pane (multi-layered) glass, and glass blocks for windows is recommended to comply with codes from the National Fire Protection Association, the International Wildland-Urban Interface Codes, as well as the California Building Code Chapter 7. More resistant hardwoods are the most environmentally friendly material for window shutters and frame, compared to metal and, especially, metal reinforced PVC-U, but might not be as fire resistant. There also exist wildfire resistant doors and fiber-cement siding which is fire resistant.

One environmentally friendly building material that is also very fire resistant (depending on density consistency and thickness) is “hempcrete” - which is the woody pulp of hemp combined with lime and water to create a thick material that can be used for insulation, over fiberglass insulation, and sometimes as interior or exterior walls. Companies that make and build structures using hempcrete include Hempitecture and Green Built.

Sealing areas around windows and doors will help in fire resiliency and increase your home’s energy efficiency.

5. Install exterior sprinklers and consider installing a rainwater tank as a source of water.

Rooftop sprinkler system; Image from Ember-S-Guard Rooftop Sprinkler Company

Rooftop sprinkler system; Image from Ember-S-Guard Rooftop Sprinkler Company

Installing an exterior sprinkler system could help a home survive a wildfire once the occupants have been evacuated. However, a sprinkler system should be considered a supplement to, and not a replacement for, other fire resilience strategies. 

Because the water supply must be adequate enough for the sprinklers to operate for the entire time embers could ignite a home, which could be up to 8 hours, it might be a good idea to have a rainwater tank as a backup or main source of water for these sprinkler systems so as to minimize water consumption from municipal supply. There are a variety of sizes and material options for rainwater tanks, but above-ground modified steel tanks or below-ground concrete tanks are better compared to above-ground plastic or underground fiberglass as far as fire resistance and, therefore, environmental impact if melted. Companies that manufacture water tanks include Rainharvest, CST Industries and Aquamate.

There are standards for private sprinklers and rainwater tanks from the National Fire Protection Association, such as NFPA-13 and NFPA-22. Australia has introduced new building guidelines in fire-prone areas, including having water tanks that can hold at least 4,000 gallons with pipes that won’t melt. AS/NZS 4020:2005 and AS/NZS 4766:2006 are joint Australian/New Zealand standards for materials that come into contact with drinking water and standards for polyethylene tanks, respectively.

Rainwater tank outside home; Image from Green Cross Australia, Build It Back Green Guide

6. Install solar panels paired with batteries to keep your power on in the event that the power grid is turned off.

Both the Camp Fire and the Cascade fire, as well as other fires in recent years, were determined to be, at least partially, caused by power lines. More and more, electrical companies are deciding to shut off power to sectors during times of high fire risk. This could create problems with notifications of evacuation plans, safety & rescue, and hinder the ability for firefighters to pump water. Households or small businesses might want to invest in solar panels for their home paired with batteries (sometimes called nanogrids) as a way to provide electrical power to their home, in the event of a power grid shutdown and/or as a way to reduce their carbon footprint. Companies that are working on solar panels for homes/nanogrid technology include Sunrun, Gridscape, and Schneider Electric.

What can local communities and city / state governments do?

Microgrid by Gridscape Solutions at Fremont, California fire station; Image from the California Energy Commission.

Microgrid by Gridscape Solutions at Fremont, California fire station; Image from the California Energy Commission.

  1. Create wildfire resilience and/or environmental sustainability guidelines for new construction or refits, adopt the International Wildland-Urban Interface Codes.

2. Encourage corporations / businesses in your community to take-on wildfire resilience and sustainability building codes - let them lead the way!

3. Use fire resistant / non-combustible materials for power line poles instead of wood and/or manage vegetation around power lines.

Communities can come together to encourage their local power providers to invest in new power lines that use non-wood materials, such as steel and to maintain the area around power lines. Communities could organize volunteer clean-ups which include managing vegetation and creating non-combustible areas around power lines.

4. Come together as a community to install a neighborhood / community rainwater tank.

Instead of, or in addition to, household rainwater tanks, a neighborhood/community could come together to install neighborhood rainwater tanks so that fire departments could be able to hook up hoses for fire-fighting. There are certain standards for water tanks and its best to work with fire departments to make sure equipment works with the rainwater tank.

5. Encourage your local, city, and state governments to install microgrids that are, at least, partially powered by clean energy sources.

Increasingly, local, city, and state governments are discussing the option of building microgrids which can be “islanded” from the main power grid and continue to supply power to communities when electric companies are forced to shut down power lines. A few areas of California are experimenting with and improving microgrid technology. The San Diego Gas & Electric Co. combines diesel generators, a commercial solar farm in New Jersey, lithium-ion batteries and solar panels on rooftops throughout the town in Borrego Springs to power its microgrid. The Blue Lake Rancheria casino has worked with Schatz Energy Research Center and Pacific Gas & Electric to use a solar-powered micro grid and Tesla battery power so that six buildings could last for months without access to the main grid. And in Fremont, California, Gridscape Solutions, a microgrid company, is setting up microgrids for fire stations in the area. Microgrids are still relatively expensive, but it could be cost effective to set them up at least for fire stations, hospitals, and emergency shelters. The solar/microgrid company, Sunrun, published comments in response to the California Public Utilities Commission as well as a white paper advocating for the use of microgrids and incentive programs, such as the Self Generation Incentive Program, to increase use of solar and batteries in communities. Communities should encourage their local, city, and state governments to invest in microgrid technology, with an emphasis on power from renewable energy sources. One way for people to organize at the community level could be through community choice aggregations (CCA’S) or municipal aggregations.

Innovation is happening in this industry and there is some work to make wind power another alternative energy source for microgrids. The winning proposal (and therefore not a detailed plan) at the CanInfra Challenge was one by IceGrid which proposed a combination of wind and solar energy to power a microgrid. And Azelio, a Swedish solar company, just demonstrated new technology for energy storage, which generates electricity in a more distributed and cost-effective way, and means that energy from a variety of sources can be stored as thermal energy — including potentially wind power.

In Conclusion

There are still questions to be answered regarding fire resiliency and connections with environmental sustainability. For example, more definitive research is needed on what types of fire resistant materials are the most environmentally sustainable for roofs, decks, siding, and insulation and more discussion is needed about potential environmental tradeoffs related to water storage and tank materials. Also, greater attention is needed by governments and research organizations towards the creation of definitive, cohesive, and readily available resources for homeowners and communities on fire resiliency/prevention. Fire resilience starts at the community level, with homeowners and local organizations deciding what is best for their homes and families. By considering the environmental impact of steps towards fire resiliency, individuals can not only protect their home and increase energy efficiency – they can help mitigate the effects of climate change which has been the biggest factor in the worsening of wildfires.

Caitlin McGonnigal