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The quest for a more fire-resistant home

Amy Scott Dec 28, 2018
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John and Lynn Stasz hired architect Mark Gerwing, right, to design their new house after the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder, Colorado.
Amy Scott/Marketplace

Driving into the foothills west of Boulder, Colorado, you can still see the scars from the Fourmile Canyon Fire eight years ago.

“When you come over this ridge, you’ll see that there’s a lot less trees than there used to be,” said architect Mark Gerwing, driving up Sunshine Canyon Drive. We were on our way to see his clients Lynn and John Stasz, whose home was among the 169 destroyed in the Fourmile fire. The Staszes knew right away they wanted to rebuild.

“It was home,” said Lynn, looking out at the bare hillside surrounding their property, which was once dense with ponderosa pines. “As devastated as it was, and the transformation, we just really wanted to be home.”

The increase in destructive wildfires in this country has brought more attention to how we build homes — and with what materials. In the Stasz’s case, building another cedar-shingled house with a large wood deck didn’t make sense in wildfire country, so Gerwing designed something safer. The deck was replaced with a concrete patio with a sweeping view to the Continental Divide. The exterior of the house is all stucco and metal. The eaves project upward, instead of down, to avoid trapping hot gases. The roof is made of a product called DensDeck.

To protect the home from future fires, the exterior is made from ignition-resistant stucco and metal, with eaves projecting upward to prevent trapping hot gases.

To protect the Stasz home from future fires, the exterior is made from ignition-resistant stucco and metal, with eaves projecting upward to prevent trapping hot gases.

 “It’s like a concrete composite board,” Gerwing said. “The rubber membrane on the outside is the waterproofing, but the concrete board is the fireproofing.”

Wood has long been a preferred building material in the United States because it’s relatively cheap and renewable. But ignition-resistant materials can cost less, said Michele Steinberg, director of the National Fire Protection Association’s wildfire division. Cement-fiber siding sells for less than half the price of traditional cedar.

“The really good news is even with the technologies and the materials we have today, there’s a lot of options for people to build a new home or to retrofit with materials that are widely available,” she said.

Ken Calligar sells a product called RSG 3-D panel, which he said is resistant to hurricanes, earthquakes and fire. It’s made of foam insulation sandwiched between steel mesh and wrapped in concrete. The city of Santa Rosa, California, is using it to replace a wall destroyed by fire last year.

“The world is moving in this direction,” Calligar said. “If you go outside the U.S., panelized buildings are pretty ubiquitous. So is concrete construction.”

But experts want people to understand there’s no such thing as a fireproof home. The best you can do is buy time, Gerwing said.

“I’m not sure if any ignition-resistant construction, if you’re really in the middle of woods and the fire was as hot as this one was, would have stopped it,” he said. Maybe the most important change the Staszes made, he said, was to expand their driveway to allow access for emergency vehicles, “giving the volunteer firefighters a good fighting chance to stop fire at your house.”

Where forest once surrounded their home, the new house has 180-degree mountain views.

Where forest once surrounded their home, the new Stasz house has 180-degree mountain views.

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