Living With Wildfires Through Shelter-In-Place

Living With Wildfires Through Shelter-In-Place

The latest wildfires in the western United States have led to renewed calls for regulation of private lands to stop the construction of homes and other buildings that may be in the path of future fires. Such regulation is neither necessary nor appropriate. Here is why:

  • It isn’t appropriate because what people do with their own property should be between them and their insurance company.
    • There are risks to living everywhere, and denying people the right to use their own land in the forests will simply lead them to build in the path of tornadoes, floods, earthquakes or other potential threats.
    • Regulation isn’t necessary because U S Forest Service research has shown that wild land property owners can use simple techniques to protect their structures from the worst of fires.
      • Using non-flammable materials for roofs and eaves and keeping vegetation within about 140 feet of the structure neatly trimmed.
      • Such techniques are called “fire-wise,” and the most extreme measures produce “shelter-in-place” homes that are so fire-resistant that the safest place to be in the event of a wildlife is in the house.


Ignition resistant techniques include:

  1. A well‐maintained, fire district approved landscape and vegetation management plan.
  2. Adequate roadway and driveway widths, designed to accommodate two‐way traffic and large firefighting apparatus.
  3. Adequate water supply and water flow for firefighting efforts.
  4. Vegetation modification zones surrounding your community.

In addition, every home in the area is built with the following criteria:

  1. Boxed‐in, heavy timber, or ignition resistant eaves with no vents.
  2. Life‐safety residential fire sprinklers.
  3. A well‐maintained, fire district‐approved fire‐resistant landscape with a minimum 100‐foot defensible space surrounding all structures.
  4. A “Class‐A,” ignition‐resistant roof.
  5. Dual pane (one being tempered) glass windows.
  6. Chimneys with spark arrestors containing a minimum ½” screen.

When a 2007 fire swept through five shelter-in-place communities outside of San Diego, not a single home was scorched. This led some to argue that people shouldn’t be allowed to use those techniques because it would simply lead to more people living in the wild land urban interface.

These are hints at the real reason for some people want regulation: They simply want to limit rural development.

The state land development agency in the state of Oregon, for example, argues that it needs to limit rural home construction to prevent “lawyers and doctors” from building in rural areas. Apparently, only those with rural occupations should be allowed to live on their own land in rural areas.

We live in a big country. But we also live with small-minded people who grab at the flimsiest of excuses to try to control where people live and how they use their own property.

If fire in the wild land-urban interface is a problem, it is because people have come to depend on the federal government to use extraordinary resources in suppressing fires. Instead, people should take responsibility by making their own properties fire-safe.

Richard Gould – Design Administration

Gould Design, Inc.