No one wants to live in a concrete bunker, “a compound,” as Salem builder Kelly Webb’s client calls the ultimate firesafe shelter. Instead, Webb is constructing a handsome, fire-hardened house with a contemporary metal shed roof along the Santiam River to replace a 1950s wood dwelling that burned down last year in a wildfire.
Webb of AK Webb Remodeling & Construction is employing design, technology and high fire-rated materials, developed based on hard-earned fire science, to slow down a blaze, granting his client peace of mind for now, and, in case of another inferno, precious extra time to escape.
Oregon’s dry, hot summer and concern about another devastating wildfire season are motivating many people to focus on fire preparedness to reduce the vulnerability of their homes and community. Coexisting with the fear of fire means making compromises when building a new house, or extensively retrofitting an existing one.
Since flames move faster and hotter uphill, some owners opt to build on level ground, forfeiting the best view higher up the slope. Expansive windows are sometimes sacrificed for smaller, more fire-wise, insulated window panes. And selecting a steel structure that can withstand more heat than a wood frame costs more and requires specific construction expertise.
Owners who want a fire-smart, corrugated metal roof are sometimes rebuffed by restrictions in communities that don’t like the modern look but do allow other types of class “A” fire-rated materials such as clay and cement tiles, asphalt and composite shingles, and slate.
Webb’s client once had a wood deck that extended almost to the river. Now, there’s a concrete patio where no dry leaves can collect underneath and potentially feed a fire.
Updated building codes and land-use restrictions force longer distances between structures and encourage wide driveways and other fire breaks to protect lives and possessions.
But a welcoming home, in the style you desire, can be achieved. Manufacturers produce steel and composite products that can look like wood, and concrete panel sheeting, installed instead of plywood, can be concealed in walls.
With lumber prices rising, fire-thwarting wood alternatives like TimberTech and Azek composite decking and James Hardie fiber-cement siding don’t push so hard against a budget as they once did, and they’re becoming more available in a variety of colors, styles and textures.
The house Webb is building has a warm, Northwest contemporary look and yet its core is a cold-form steel frame erected on a concrete slab.
Outside, James Hardie siding that looks like horizontal wood planks rises four feet from the ground; above it are more cement boards imitating classic board-and-batten.
The owner also considered using steel siding modeled after wood that’s produced by Metallion Industries in Estacada.
Heavy-duty steel doors, even with homey looking panels, still look too commercial for most people. But they can order fiberglass doors that can endure an average fire for 20 minutes or longer before combusting.
“There’s no such thing as a completely armored house,” said Michael Benjamin, director of research and development at James Hardie. “All structures have a breaking point, but there are ways to prevent an opening that gives fire free access to your home.”
Benjamin, a mechanical engineer who has tested thousands of products during his 18 years at James Hardie, said he likes to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
“Home is where you go to feel protected,” he said. “You should be able to go to sleep and wake up knowing the outside of your home should be able to stand up to fire.”
Webb is an environmentally conscious builder who’s always searching for energy efficient materials and he said pre-engineered steel is a fire-hardening material that produces less waste on site than wood.
“From a green building aspect, there is no comparison,” said Webb.
For the Santiam River house, Webb is following plans by architect Peter Lyle Strauhal of Protech Design Group in Salem.
Strauhal’s clients concerned about wildfires never feel boxed into a look. Framing choices include heavy timber, or metal and concrete block as well as cast-in-place concrete and insulated concrete forms. Exterior walls can be clad in one of “tens of thousands of metal siding styles,” he said.
Fiberglass window frames installed here will expand under heat at the same rate as glass and keep windows in place longer than vinyl frames that melt or wood that burns, said Webb.
Webb won’t be installing exterior steel shutters that can be pulled down over windows to keep heat from an outside fire from shattering the glass. “My client felt it would look too much like a compound,” he said. “She didn’t want her house to feel like she was in lockdown.”
Undetectable fire-safe features: Large eaves provide shade from the sun and stop anything from falling against the house. The building envelop is sealed for energy efficiency and to prevent flying embers from entering. And the concrete porch and patio serve as fire breaks.
Trees destroyed in the wildfire were replaced with non-volatile shrubs planted away from exterior walls and among green ground cover and decorative rock.
Some new homes in rural areas, depending on the location, are required to have a fire suppression system. This property has a large water storage tank and an interior sprinkler system similar to a commercial environment, said Webb.
The landscape and exterior of a home are the first lines of defense from a wildfire barreling toward you.
Before deciding on a location, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) wants homeowners to consider the area’s fire history, prevailing winds and irrigation requirements.
A single-story structure should be at least 30 feet from a ridge or cliff and farther away if it’s a two-story home, said ODF.
Adam Graham, a construction industry analyst for Fixr.com, which provides cost and hiring advice for home remodeling projects, said fire-resistant materials must be well-maintained — a metal roof fails if small holes allow embers to enter the attic, he said — and everyone needs to be vigilant.
“It’s essential for communities to work together, making sure that all structures are following guidelines when it comes to fire protection and prevention,” he said. “Houses on the edge of communities close to wildfire, for example, could be the key in stopping the spread to other houses.”
Past wildfires and predictions of more dry environments caused by rising temperatures and droughts are motivating people building in fire prone areas to reconsider traditional building materials to better protect their homes.
Here are experts’ advice to prevent structural damage and fire spread:
Walls: Fire-resistant exterior walls include masonry products such as brick, stone or concrete block. Concrete modular units (CMUs), insulated concrete forms (ICF) and steel framing are more durable than a stick-built home, and, if clad in flame-retardant siding, can hold up against wildfires, earthquakes and other disasters.
Gypsum board, also known as drywall reinforced with glass fibers, turns into steam when it comes in contact with fire.
Roof: Clay and cement tiles, asphalt and composite shingles, metal panels, slate and other materials with class “A” fire rating help keep fire from spreading or penetrating a home.
- Burning embers can roll off a steep-pitched roof, making it more fire resistant than a flat one.
- Fire-buffering sub-roof sheathing or underlayment can improve the roof’s effectiveness.
- The underside of roof eaves, fascias and soffits need to be enclosed with an ignition-resistant material to protect against airborne embers.
- Trim all vegetation that overhangs the roof.
- Roofs, gutters and eaves need to be clear of dry plant debris.
Glass: Double- or triple-pane windows hold up longer than single-pane ones when faced with the heat of a wildfire.
- Basement windows will be exposed to fire at its hottest.
- Tempered safety glass will break into small, granular pieces that are less dangerous than glass that splinters into jagged shards.
- Insulated sliding doors that are tempered will withstand heat longer than standard plate glass.
- Acrylic used in skylights melts quickly, creating a hole in the roof.
Seal openings: More than 90% of homes in a wildfire are burned by embers that can travel a mile or more depending on wind. Soffit vents, gable end vents and air vents, including dryer vents, should be covered with 1/8-inch metal mesh or have built-in ember screens that won’t burn such as Embers Out vents and filters.
- Install a metal mesh screen or a spark arresting cap to cover a chimney without creating a buildup of exhaust gases.
- Tightly sealed doors made of fiberglass, metal and wood with a 20-minute fire rating can temporarily stop embers from entering the house. Pet doors are vulnerable to embers.
Landscaping: Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman Rob Garrison said anyone who has seen photos of burned neighborhoods can spot the surviving homes that had a defensible space around them.
Keep your yard green, lean and clean, he said by pruning, thinning and removing dead or high-risk vegetation as well as bark mulch; and irrigating low-growing, high-moisture plants to slow or stop ground fires.
- A perimeter of crushed stone adjacent to the house prevents fire from getting a foothold.
- Create a fire break with driveways, gravel paths and green lawns, and make sure your address numbers are clearly visible to emergency responders trying to find you.
Fire prevention starts in the yard: How you can improve the situation on your own property
Wood-alternate decks, metal fences: Porches and decks should be made of fire-treated wood boards or fire-resistant alternatives.
- Don’t stored anything under a porch or deck that can catch fire. Install metal wire mesh no larger than an 1/8 inch to prevent dry leaves from collecting underneath.
- Consider steel fencing. ODF tells homeowners who insist on having an all-wood fence to use masonry or metal as a protective barrier between the fence and the house.
5 steps to take right now to be ready for Oregon wildfire season
— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072