Placeholder Image photo credit: Marc Albert/KRCB
Strategic use of concrete can make all the difference. 


After losing their home to the 2017 Tubbs fire, Susan and John Gansel say they were determined. While some survivors left for regions with year-round rain, the Gansels did not.

Instead, they dug in where another wildfire is always a threat. Sonoma County. Susan says they had one singular goal.

"the main focus of what we wanted to do here was to be as fire resistant as possible."

On a recent Wednesday, the Gansels were taking advantage of a new program---a free, expert assessment of potential wildfire vulnerabilities. It's something Sonoma County is encouraging home owners in high fire risk zones to take advantage of, and may end up reimbursing property owners for thousands of dollars of work removing those weaknesses. 

Nearly six years after the Tubbs fire they've only recently moved in to their new home. It's ultra-modern. Clean lines, abundant natural light, ceilings soaring higher than a trapeze artist. And made almost entirely of concrete.

Avoiding wood for construction came with a cost.

"Yes," said Susan Gansel, "it was way more expensive, it's almost like building two houses. We have an eight inch concrete walls and within that we have another plywood form that is the rest of the house," Gansel added.

She said the home cost about double what it would if made from wood.

It also wasn't easy. They fought insurers, county planners over materials and neighbors certain the design would desecrate their exclusive Healdsburg neighborhood of more traditional mansions.

But there was no bad blood evident with planning officials that Wednedsay---in fact, a handful Permit Sonoma staffers were hosting a tour, singing the home's praises as an example of best practices.

When the county unveiled free, home-hardening assessments in areas of high fire risk, officials assumed they'd be deluged with requests.

After-all, who wouldn't want to do everything possible not to lose their home?

Plus, it's only the first step. The county anticipates getting federal grants to give to homeowners to pay for work removing vulnerabilities to wildfire.

"When I wrote the grant I put limitations in for the 12 project areas, right," said Caerleon Safford, Department Analyst with Permit Sonoma's Fire Prevention and HazMat Division. "Oh, gosh, were going to have so many people wanting to get this awesome service, right? That we're going to have to turn them away. Turns out not so much," Safford said.

Reluctance to participation has two main origins, Safford said.

"People are really worried about oh, what's going to happen if my insurance company gets a hold of this. What's going to happen if, maybe I've done something without a permit in the past, right?"

While insurers could gain the data through a public records request, Safford said that seldom happens as companies have their own ways to assess risk.

As far as code-enforcement, she said info isn't generally shared. Though when pressed she conceded that it isn't an ironclad guarantee.

"This is not a code compliance program that's not what we're trying to do, but that does remain a significant concern for many residents," Safford said.

The Gansels had no such reluctance. 

Ivan O'Neill is co-founder and CEO of Madronus Wildfire Defense. He's one the experts hired by the county to do these home inspections through a federal grant. With a few turkey vultures soaring above on late summer thermals, O'Neill got down to work.

"We're looking for anything really in the first five feet that is combustible. Bark mulches, plants, furniture or garden tools, dog houses or sheds that are right in that first five feet, and those can be very vulnerable to embers. Those become the kindling that can then expose and carry the fire to the house," O'Neill said.

Here, the area immediately around the home is a mix of concrete and rock. O'Neill approves.

He's combing over the structure like a detective searching for clues before anything even happened.

Wind-carried, burning embers are one of the top causes of homes being lost to wildfire, he says. He recommends replacing the lowest row or two of siding, with fire resistant material.

Then, O'Neill spies a potential culprit---a wooden table.

"We would not recommend having wooden patio furniture. Sometimes we see shelves and cabinets, sometimes we see plastic storage units for different things-for garden things--all of those are combustible and are really vulnerable if they are right next to the house," O'Neill said.

Another common feature of modern suburban California, all those fences making good neighbors? If they're wooden and continue right up to the house...

"And that fire follows the fence like a fuse toward the house and where it connects. So, we don't need to replace the entire fence, but we want to focus on the first five feet or even better, if you can, ten or fifteen feet, replacing that with a non-combustible option," O'Neill said.

Think wrought iron, for example.

Roof eaves and vents are another typical weakness. There are no problems here, but on most existing homes, it's critical to close any gap larger than an eighth of an inch, O'Neill said. Metal mesh and flashing typically accomplish the job.

Placeholder Imagephoto credit: Marc Albert/KRCB
Metal roof, tempered glass, treated wood, concrete deck.


Decks are yet another.

"Think of decks as wood piles in a nice constructed form, right next to your home," O'Neill said.

That's quite an image. While best to get rid of entirely, that's not always realistic.

"You can replace the deck-board just immediately next to the house, with say a metal grate or a single board that is metal. A replacement."

If the to-do list sounds insurmountable, set reasonable goals...said Evan Bradish with Northern Sonoma County Fire.

Bradish leads his agency's inspection efforts. In contrast to O'Neill's service, Bradish focuses on the 100 feet around a home--what in the trade they call 'defensible space,' To Bradish it's something of a numbers game. Nothing can be impervious, but investing the right amount of time and money can make all the difference.

"The more you do, the higher the probability increases of it not happening, so just because you don't do all of it, doesn't necessarily mean it's not going to work. If you do 50 percent of it, your chances of that deck catching fire are going to go way down versus doing nothing, so we recommend doing everything, but if you can't do everything, it doesn't mean to do nothing," Bradish said.


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