The future of fire-resistant construction can be seen in the new homes rising from the ashes of the wildfires that have devastated California over the past four years. The materials and techniques that make them more impervious to fire can also be used to retrofit existing houses.
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Finding the weakest spots
To start, says LeCron, “you want to harden the house from the exterior and look for weak links.” Begin at the top with the roof. Roofs made of wood or other combustible materials should be replaced with metal, clay tiles, or non-flammable composite shingles. The same goes for decks and balconies. Attic and foundation vents can suck in burning embers and burn the house down from the inside. Attach fine mesh screens to the vents or swap them for screens coated in materials that expand and seal the vent when exposed to high temperatures. Gutters and roofs should be kept clear of debris and vegetation pruned back at least five feet from the house.
LeCron and partner Karen Arri-LeCron say windows are often overlooked as a significant vulnerability to fire. Building codes may require double or triple-paned tempered glass to withstand fires but don’t specify the material to frame the windows. Commonly used vinyl frames will melt when exposed to high temperatures, causing the window to fall out and exposing a house’s interior to flames. Homeowners should make sure frames are fire-resistant. One option is installing shutters that automatically close when exposed to fire.
Garage doors are another weak link. “They are usually cheap and not fire resistant,” says LeCron. “That’s a big entry point for fires.”
Exterior walls can be retrofitted with fire-resistant stucco or synthetic siding, such as environmentally friendly poly-ash, which is made of polymers and a byproduct from coal burning called fly-ash. “It won’t rot, it won’t burn, and you can work it and nail it like wood,” says Kelly.