Fire Rebuilding Information

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A plethora of information on fire retardant materials for building a home or using sprays or foams afterward has come out of the woodwork after recent fires.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The images of homes burning during the Southern California fires two weeks ago bring back to the forefront of what steps Malibu homeowners can take to prepare for and minimize the damage of future fires that inevitably will hit this community.

The most immediate recommendation from Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman is brush clearance around the home-removing any combustible growth from within 30 feet of any structure (50 feet in high hazard areas) and thinning out any other vegetation within 100 feet (200 feet in high hazard areas).

Keeping trees pruned and maintained and landscaping with drought tolerant, fire-resistant plants are other steps.

But what to do in the event your home is in the path of a future oncoming fire and brush clearance hasn’t stopped burning embers from alighting on your home and fire department resources are unable to get to it in time?

Fire protection products

The reported home of movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg on Pacific Coast Highway was sprayed with fire retardant foam during the Malibu Canyon Fire, making the area look like a snowy Christmas. Whether the company that sprayed the home was privately contracted is unknown, but insurance companies are beginning to offer extra fire protection services to those willing to pay heightened premiums.

AIG’s Private Client Group has teamed up with Firebreak Spray Systems to offer a rapid response team in high-risk areas of the country. In the event of wildfire, one call will send a truck to spray your home and property with fire retardant.

“Regular county fire departments don’t use this material,” Eddie Hosch, spokesman for Firebreak Services, said. “This is a long-lasting retardant that stays for months until it is washed off.”

Such policies can be pricey, though, so Firebreak Systems also offers a portable system that a homeowner can activate himself.

Bob Heinrich is the former CEO of the International Code Council, the agency tasked with writing building code for counties across the United States. He has worked diligently in recent years to assure code approval of a new product that he says “will absolutely prevent a house from burning.”

“It’s not a sprinkler system, it’s not a foam you spray on your house when a fire is coming,” Heinrich said. “Sprinklers get 100,000 manufacturing recalls a year and cause water damage. You can spray fire retardant foam, but if flying embers get up under your attic eaves, your house will burn.”

Heinrich’s solution, which he calls NO BURN, is a product that is used to treat building materials before construction, or which can be sprayed on attic beams, applied to exterior walls with a low VOC paint and used to treat fabrics around windows of existing houses. “Your house will not ignite,” he said.

NO BURN was discovered and developed by scientists working in the food industry. “So this product is organic, non-toxic and environmentally safe,” Heinrich said. “It also is effective in completely preventing black mold and preventing termites.”

Costs of the NO BURN treatment ranges from $2,000 to $4,000 “applied in large scale, such as in a KB home development,” Heinrich said. “On an existing home, treatment would cost maybe $5,000 or a little more. But for people who who’ve lost property in fires, the policy pays for itself.

“One of our clients, Paul Morra who lives in Coral Canyon, was having trouble even getting a quote for fire insurance,” he added. “When he told them that he was using NO BURN, he got the insurance at a $5,000 discount. So the treatment paid for itself the first year.”

Asked why, if this product prevents fire ignition, is environmentally safe, protects against mold and termites and costs are minimal, city councils across America haven’t adopted it into municipal building codes, Heinrich answered: “Well, the construction industry doesn’t readily embrace change and the ICC works slowly because you don’t want to advocate unproven technology. But we ran extensive testing and just got ICC approval in California. The state has completed official modifications to code regulations and now it’s up to municipalities to adopt code compliance.”

Building with fire safe materials

In addition to fire retardant sprays, foams or other products, residents looking to rebuild or remodel have a wealth of new fire-resistant sustainable building models to follow. Robert Mechielsen heads the architectural firm Studio-RMA in Topanga and is a proponent of “green” architecture largely due to such advantages.

“It is almost impossible to guarantee a 100 percent fire-safe area in the middle of a firestorm,” Mechielsen said. “But you can definitely protect your home from flying embers.”

He said there are a number of nonflammable roofing materials available from light metal to tiles. “But not tiles that fit on wood-framed roofs-use alternatives, like metal,” he advised.

In fact, Mechielsen would rather do away with any kind of wood entirely in building construction. “Wood burns,” he said simply. “There are concrete composite materials like fire resistant (up to four hours) SCIP (Structural Concrete Insulation Panels) and lightweight metal framing with stucco.”

Mechielsen also advises using low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, replacing plastic rain gutters with metal gutters and eliminating any exposed wood.

Malibu resident Mike O’Brian said he is looking to build a 120-square-foot safe room with a two-hour fire rating in a new remodel.

“I intend to use the space as an office where valuable papers, etc. will be stored,” he wrote by e-mail to The Malibu Times. “Jewelry, business records… family photos, PCs would be permanently stored in the safe room.”

O’Brian estimated that such a fire-rated, steel shelled unit would add about $30,000 to the cost of his construction.

Whatever technologies are adopted to deal with what increasingly looks to be a 12-month-a-year fire season, Malibu residents are not being scared off by last week’s fire. When asked if this latest fire to threaten his home would convince him to finally leave the area, Malibu Road resident John Garcia dismissed the idea. “Nah,” he said. “I dodged this bullet.”

More information on NO BURN can be obtained by calling 888.7NO.BURN or online at www.noburnca.com. More information on Fire Break Systems can be obtained online at www.firebreaksystems.com, or through insurance agencies that work with such companies.