The Camp Fire car­nage through Par­adise seemed ran­dom: Why were some houses saved and oth­ers de­stroyed? The rea­son might be more sim­ple than you think.

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese Sacra­mento Bee

PAR­ADISE >> The sky was turn­ing orange and the em­bers were fly­ing from the Camp Fire when Oney and Donna Car­rell and Donna’s fa­ther sped away from their Par­adise home.

“I thought, ‘Oh, well, the house is done,’ ” Oney Car­rell said.

A few days later, they learned other­wise. The Car­rells’ house sur­vived the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory with a cou­ple of warped win­dow frames, a par­tially charred downspout and a stub­born smoky smell in­side.

Most of their neigh­bor­hood was de­stroyed. A guest house in their back­yard, where Donna Car­rell’s fa­ther lived, was re­duced to ashes, along with a cou­ple of sheds. Yet their beau­ti­fully re­stored 1940 Stude­baker sat un­touched in the garage.

The arc of de­struc­tion the Camp Fire carved through Par­adise was seem­ingly ran­dom: Why were some houses saved and oth­ers in­cin­er­ated?

As mil­lions of Cal­i­for­ni­ans brace for an­other wild­fire sea­son, a McClatchy anal­y­sis of fire and prop­erty records shows the an­swer might be found in some­thing as sim­ple as the roofs over their heads — and the year their house was built.

"Our yard and the con­struc­tion of the house saved it for sure. You can see it tried to catch on fire." — Dawn Herr, Par­adise res­i­dent whose house sur­vived the Camp Fire

A land­mark 2008 build­ing code de­signed for Cal­i­for­nia’s fire-prone re­gions — re­quir­ing fire-re­sis­tant roofs, sid­ing and other safe­guards — ap­pears to have pro­tected the Car­rells’ house and dozens of oth­ers like it from the Camp Fire. That year marks a piv­otal mo­ment in the state’s deadly and ex­pen­sive his­tory of de­struc­tive nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

All told, about 51 per­cent of the 350 sin­gle-fam­ily houses built af­ter 2008 in the path of the Camp Fire were un­dam­aged, ac­cord­ing to McClatchy’s anal­y­sis of Cal Fire data and Butte County prop­erty records. By con­trast, only 18 per­cent of the 12,100 houses built be­fore 2008 es­caped dam­age.

“Th­ese are great stan­dards; they work,” said se­nior en­gi­neer Robert Raymer of the Cal­i­for­nia Build­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion, who con­sulted with state of­fi­cials on the build­ing code.

Yet de­spite this les­son, Cal­i­for­nia may end up fall­ing short in its ef­fort to pro­tect homes from the next wild­fire.

The state, which of­fers cash in­cen­tives to bol­ster old houses against earthquakes, so far has done noth­ing to get Cal­i­for­ni­ans to retro­fit houses built be­fore 2008 for fire safety.

It hasn’t helped that hous­ing con­struc­tion went into a deep dive in 2008 and has been slow to re­cover. Raymer said only 860,000 homes and apart­ments have been built statewide since the code went into ef­fect. That’s just 6 per­cent of the state’s hous­ing stock.

Ac­cord­ing to Cal Fire, as many as 3 mil­lion houses lie within the var­i­ous “fire hazard sever­ity zones” around the state. Dave Sap­sis, a Cal Fire wild­land fire sci­en­tist, said there’s no way to know defini­tively how many of those houses were built be­fore 2008, but he be­lieves that “it’s the pre­pon­der­ance of them, the ma­jor­ity.”

The sit­u­a­tion is worse in ru­ral Cal­i­for­nia, where hous­ing con­struc­tion lags but the fire haz­ards are among the worst in the state, Raymer said. Fewer than 3 per­cent of the houses in the path of the Camp Fire were built af­ter 2008.

“Most of our in­ven­tory that was here prior to the fire was (built) be­tween the ’40s and the ’70s,” said Par­adise Town Coun­cil­man Michael Zuc­co­l­illo, a real es­tate agent. “The av­er­age home here was from the ’70s.”

That leaves thou­sands of houses at risk from the next in­ferno, their wood-shake shin­gles wait­ing to ig­nite.

Land­scap­ing, luck fac­tor in

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to say for cer­tain why some houses are still stand­ing in Par­adise, while oth­ers were ru­ined. Land­scap­ing surely played a role; fire ex­perts say houses buffered by so­called de­fen­si­ble space prob­a­bly did bet­ter than those wrapped in shrubs. Luck was a big fac­tor, too, as houses were no doubt spared by last-sec­ond shifts in the winds.

Nev­er­the­less, ex­perts say, McClatchy’s anal­y­sis re­in­forces their be­lief that Cal­i­for­nia’s fire-safe build­ing code can make a dif­fer­ence. Daniel Gorham, a for­mer fire­fighter and U.S. For­est Ser­vice re­searcher who works for the In­surance In­sti­tute for Busi­ness & Home Safety in South Carolina, said the Cal­i­for­nia code is be­com­ing a model for other fire-prone states.

A study last fall by Head­wa­ter Eco­nom­ics, a con­sult­ing firm in Boze­man, Mon­tana, found that “a new home built to wild­fire-re­sis­tant codes can be con­structed for roughly the same cost as a typ­i­cal home.”

But get­ting Cal­i­for­ni­ans to retro­fit houses built be­fore 2008 is an enor­mous task. The state re­quires prop­erty own­ers in fire zones who re­place at least half their roof to in­stall “fire-re­tar­dant” ma­te­ri­als on the en­tire roof. Other than that, how­ever, there’s noth­ing forc­ing Cal­i­for­ni­ans to safe­guard their houses against fire haz­ards.

A few Cal­i­for­nia cities have taken mat­ters into their own hands. In 2008, the City Coun­cil in Big Bear Lake, a com­mu­nity of 5,200 in San Bernardino County in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, passed an or­di­nance declar­ing wood-shake shin­gle roofs “a se­vere fire hazard and dan­ger” and or­dered home­own­ers to re­place them by 2012. Armed with state and fed­eral grants, it of­fered cash in­cen­tives of up to $4,500 apiece for new roofs.

Al­though the grant pro­gram has run out, “I can’t think of the last time I saw a shake roof in Big Bear,” said Pa­trick John­ston, the city’s chief build­ing of­fi­cial.

Most Cal­i­for­ni­ans, how­ever, are on their own when it comes to spend­ing the tens of thou­sands of dol­lars needed to re­place a roof or in­stall fire-re­sis­tant sid­ing. The state of­fers no fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives for fire safety the way it does, say, for earthquakes.

There are signs, how­ever, that the state is be­gin­ning to get more se­ri­ous about retrofitting houses for fire safety.

A law signed last year by then-Gov. Jerry Brown re­quires the state fire mar­shal to de­velop a sug­gested list of “low­cost retrofits” by Jan­uary 2020. The state would then pro­mote th­ese retrofits in its ed­u­ca­tion and out­reach ef­forts.

Cal­i­for­nia also might start throw­ing cash at the prob­lem.

A bill, AB 38, in­tro­duced this year by Demo­cratic As­sem­bly­man Jim Wood of Santa Rosa, would cre­ate a $1 bil­lion “fire hard­ened homes re­volv­ing loan fund” to help home­own­ers retro­fit their prop­er­ties.

Al­though el­i­gi­bil­ity terms haven’t been spelled out, the bill would of­fer low-in­ter­est and noin­t­er­est loans to help those who other­wise couldn’t pay for new roofs or other safe­guards.

The fund might not be nearly enough to go around — not with hun­dreds of thou­sands of houses in need of retrofits, and a new roof alone cost­ing $10,000 or more. “The $1 bil­lion, in­deed, that’s not enough to rehab ev­ery home,” said the Build­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion’s Raymer. But he said it’s “an ab­so­lutely ex­cel­lent way to kick things off.”

Map­ping ‘sever­ity zones’

The fire-safe build­ing code had its ori­gins in two sig­nif­i­cant fires from a gen­er­a­tion ago — the Panorama Fire of 1980, which spilled out of the moun­tains into the city of San Bernardino, and the mon­strous Oak­land Hills Fire of 1991, which wiped out 2,500 homes and killed 25 peo­ple.

In re­sponse, the Leg­is­la­ture or­dered the De­part­ment of Fire Pro­tec­tion and Forestry to start map­ping ma­jor fire risks in Cal­i­for­nia. The re­sult was a col­lec­tion of maps of the state’s “fire hazard sever­ity zones,” en­com­pass­ing more than one-third of Cal­i­for­nia’s land mass.

The zones rep­re­sent Cal Fire’s at­tempt to pre­dict the prob­a­bil­ity of a fire start­ing and the like­li­hood that it could be­come sig­nif­i­cant, said Cal Fire’s Sap­sis.

The Leg­is­la­ture man­dated fire-re­sis­tant roofs in th­ese fire­prone ar­eas. Then, in 2008, the state laid out a more com­pre­hen­sive scheme. The Cal­i­for­nia Build­ing Stan­dards Com­mis­sion rolled out a suite of reg­u­la­tions, known as Chap­ter 7A, that set strict rules for roof­ing ma­te­ri­als, sid­ing, win­dows, decks and other el­e­ments of a house built in 2008 or later.

En­force­ment of the build­ing code car­ries a few wrin­kles. In the mainly ru­ral ar­eas where Cal Fire is in charge of fire pro­tec­tion, the Chap­ter 7A code is au­to­mat­i­cally en­forced in any re­gion that Cal Fire has des­ig­nated as a “sever­ity zone” — mod­er­ate, high or very high.

In ur­ban ar­eas that have their own fire de­part­ments, the code is gen­er­ally used only in spots where Cal Fire says the threat is very high. Lo­cal gov­ern­ments have the dis­cre­tion of re­ject­ing the Cal Fire des­ig­na­tion, and Sap­sis said some city coun­cils have been squea­mish about the state’s maps be­cause of fears that the Chap­ter 7A code will in­flate con­struc­tion costs, or for other rea­sons.

Yet in­ter­views with lo­cal of­fi­cials through­out Cal­i­for­nia in­di­cate that the vast ma­jor­ity of cities and towns go along with Cal Fire’s rec­om­men­da­tions.

Dan­ger zones?

Be­fore Par­adise ex­ploded, Santa Rosa’s Cof­fey Park was the poster child for re­cent Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire dis­as­ters: Five peo­ple died and 1,321 homes were de­stroyed by the Tubbs Fire in Oc­to­ber 2017.

Cof­fey Park wasn’t sub­ject to Cal­i­for­nia’s Chap­ter 7A build­ing code. It still isn’t.

Un­like some ar­eas of Santa Rosa, the neigh­bor­hood hasn’t been des­ig­nated a “very high fire hazard” zone by Cal Fire. City of­fi­cials are OK with that. Al­though devel­op­ers re­build­ing Cof­fey Park are be­ing urged to con­sider fire-re­sis­tant ma­te­ri­als, city spokes­woman Adri­ane Mertens said the city doesn’t see any rea­son to im­pose the 7A code in the neigh­bor­hood.

“There were very, very high winds that night,” Mertens said. “There were em­bers that were blown across the (High­way 101) free­way, across six lanes of free­way, into Cof­fey Park.”

Jack Co­hen, a fire sci­en­tist in Mon­tana who helped de­velop the 7A code, said he thinks Santa Rosa is com­mit­ting “an er­ror in judg­ment” by re­build­ing with­out the safe­guards.

In any event, Cal Fire is up­dat­ing its fire hazard maps over the next year or so, tak­ing into ac­count more so­phis­ti­cated data on wind and other cli­mate fac­tors, and Sap­sis said spots such as Cof­fey Park could wind up des­ig­nated as high­risk ar­eas. Once the maps are done, any re­gion placed in­side Cal Fire’s “very high fire” zone will have no choice but to com­ply, un­der a bill signed into law by Brown last year.

But there will still be ways for cities to skirt the build­ing code.

Look at Folsom, widely con­sid­ered one of the most vul­ner­a­ble places in the greater Sacra­mento area to fire. The county’s hazard mit­i­ga­tion plan says 44,000 res­i­dents of Folsom are at “mod­er­ate or higher wild­fire risk.”

Now the sub­urb is build­ing a de­vel­op­ment called Folsom Ranch, even­tu­ally to be home to 25,000 peo­ple, on a par­cel south of High­way 50.

The de­vel­op­ment is on land that used to be sub­ject to the strict state build­ing code. Now it isn’t.

How did that hap­pen? Years ago, the land was out­side Folsom’s city lim­its and Cal Fire was re­spon­si­ble for its safety. Cal Fire’s maps put the land in the “mod­er­ate” risk zone — a threat level high enough that, un­der the state’s reg­u­la­tions, the fire-safe build­ing code took ef­fect. As it hap­pened, no con­struc­tion took place dur­ing that time, city of­fi­cials say.

The sit­u­a­tion changed when the city an­nexed the land to forge ahead with Folsom Ranch. Be­cause the land has never been in the state’s “very high” risk zone, the city feels com­fort­able let­ting Folsom Ranch de­velop with­out the Chap­ter 7A build­ing code.

Fire Chief Felipe Ro­driguez said Folsom of­fi­cials are still open to “the pos­si­bil­ity of strength­en­ing, hard­en­ing, our fu­ture homes.” But for now, the city is only re­quir­ing home­own­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions to im­ple­ment a “veg­e­ta­tion man­age­ment” plan and in­stall fire-re­sis­tant fenc­ing around prop­er­ties that abut open space ar­eas.

‘Sticks in a fire­place’

The hun­dreds of thou­sands of older houses in fire zones aren’t just more vul­ner­a­ble in their own right. Ex­perts say they spread dan­ger to new houses built to stricter stan­dards.

Par­adise pro­vided a grim re­minder of that prob­lem. The Camp Fire de­stroyed more than 80 per­cent of the 4,100 mo­bile homes in its path, whether or not they were built to the new code, ac­cord­ing to McClatchy’s data anal­y­sis.

“They’re stacked so close to­gether, they’re like sticks in a fire­place,” Sap­sis said.

Sap­sis and oth­ers say the les­son is that strong build­ing codes aren’t enough.

Chris Di­cus is a forestry and fire ex­pert at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. “In the name of af­ford­able hous­ing, we’re mov­ing hous­ing closer and closer to one an­other,” Di­cus said. “That serves to have house-to-houseto-house ig­ni­tion.”

In ad­di­tion, ex­perts say Cal­i­for­nia is strug­gling to en­force the state law re­gard­ing “de­fen­si­ble space” around prop­er­ties.

The law re­quires that prop­erty own­ers main­tain as much as 100 feet of de­fen­si­ble space around houses and other build­ings in and around “a moun­tain­ous area, for­est-cov­ered lands, brush-cov­ered lands, grass-cov­ered lands, or land that is cov­ered with flammable ma­te­rial.” That means keep­ing trees and shrubs pruned and spaced far apart.

In prac­tice, how­ever, en­force­ment of the de­fen­si­ble space law has been spotty at best. Raymer, of the Cal­i­for­nia Build­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion, said most prop­erty own­ers don’t un­der­stand how to main­tain their yards. The state doesn’t im­pose penal­ties for non­com­pli­ance, and only a few lo­cal gov­ern­ments have cho­sen to do so, Raymer said.

Leg­is­la­tion could change that. SB 190, by Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would re­quire the state fire mar­shal to de­velop a “model de­fen­si­ble space pro­gram,” in­clud­ing penal­ties, that lo­cal gov­ern­ments could adopt.

The prob­lem ex­tends be­yond home­own­ers’ prop­erty lines. Gov. Gavin New­som is ad­vo­cat­ing for more ag­gres­sive man­age­ment of forested lands.

A thinned for­est north­east of Par­adise pro­vided one of the rare vic­to­ries of the Camp Fire. As the fire raged out of the tiny com­mu­nity of Pulga, it es­sen­tially spared the north­ern part of Ma­galia. The rea­son was a se­ries of for­est-thinning projects con­ducted in re­cent years and over­seen by the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, Sierra Pa­cific In­dus­tries and the vol­un­teer Butte County Fire Safe Coun­cil.

All that work “did ex­actly what we hoped it would do,” said Calli-Jane DeAnda, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the coun­cil, which se­cured $1 mil­lion in grants to re­move fu­els from forested ar­eas. “This in­vest­ment of pub­lic money is so worth the ef­fort.”

Par­adise ‘lab ex­per­i­ment’

The re­build­ing of Par­adise means thou­sands of houses are go­ing to be con­structed in the com­ing years to the stricter stan­dards pro­mul­gated by the state in 2008. It rep­re­sents the sin­gle largest test of the ef­fec­tive­ness of the build­ing code.

“That is an ab­so­lute lab ex­per­i­ment for us,” Sap­sis said.

On the streets of Par­adise, though, com­mu­nity lead­ers are tak­ing a more mea­sured view. Zuc­co­l­illo, the town coun­cil­man, said as­phalt roofs and stucco sid­ing might “give us more of a chance,” but he doubts they will guar­an­tee Par­adise’s safety.

“I saw metal build­ings, metal and stucco build­ings, burn to the ground,” he said.

Still, there’s plenty of ev­i­dence, all over Par­adise, that the state’s build­ing code can pro­tect prop­erty.

The other day, Sean Herr pulled into his drive­way on the west side of Par­adise. The first thing he did was bring out the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of re­siliency: an Amer­i­can flag, the same one that flew on his front porch the day of the Camp Fire.

The Herrs’ house, built in 2010, suf­fered a bit of scorch­ing and some in­te­rior smoke dam­age — the smoke is bad enough that they’re still tem­po­rar­ily liv­ing in Chico.

Still, they mar­vel at what a close call they had. Most of their neigh­bor­hood is gone.

The Herrs be­lieve their at­ten­tion to de­fen­si­ble space — the house is mostly en­cir­cled in gravel — and the strict­ness of the build­ing code prob­a­bly made the dif­fer­ence.

“Our yard and the con­struc­tion of the house saved it for sure,” Dawn Herr said, ges­tur­ing to a small scorch mark by the side of the house. “You can see it tried to catch on fire.”


An aerial im­age shows the home of Sean and Dawn Herr, bot­tom cen­ter, in Par­adise on March 19. The house, built in 2010 to new fire-re­sis­tant build­ing stan­dards, sur­vived the Camp Fire while many nearby houses burned or were de­stroyed.


Sean and Dawn Herr col­lect an Amer­i­can flag that sur­vived the Camp Fire along with their Par­adise home. A shed con­tain­ing the fam­ily ve­hi­cle and a boat burned, along with nearby houses. The Herrs’ house was built in 2010, and the cou­ple cred­its its sur­vival to its con­struc­tion and de­fen­si­ble space.

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