Each major fire we have tells us something important. What we learn may be something new or it may be confirmation of something observed before.
Colorado’s Waldo Canyon Fire of June this year confirmed something we knew about shake roofs: they are dangerous in fires.
I have mentioned the Waldo Canyon Fire before in this space, but it is worth bringing up again given that we have learned more about the losses.
At a conference sponsored by the California Fire Safe Council at the Pala Resort on Sept. 19, the keynote speaker Kate Dargan, former California state fire marshal, told those present that of the 346 homes destroyed in the fire, all had either a cedar shake roof or were next to a house that had one. This striking observation is in line with other studies showing the flammability of wood roofs.
Dargan also mentioned that several house ignitions were caused by wooden fences attached to the house.
So once again wood roofs are shown to be a fire hazard, both to the house they cover and to the houses around them.
The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, which conducts research on house fires, has the opinion that “combustible roof coverings are the greatest threat to a structure during a wildfire”, and strongly suggests replacing wood roofs with Class “A” materials that are much harder to ignite.
The Waldo Canyon Fire also showed the importance of mitigation (fuel reduction) in stopping fires. In interviews given to the National Fire Protection Association, Battalion Chief Randy Royall of the Colorado Springs FD spoke of how he and his teams could see the intense fire “lay down” when it hit mitigated common areas in a development right in the fire’s path. The change in the fire allowed firefighters to get control of the fire at these points.
Speaking of individual homes that had been mitigated, Chief Royal said, “You could tell where the fire crept right up to the house and stopped, while the next three houses burned because of having shake shingles or ladder fuels up around their house.
“We are really going to be pro-active on mitigation” he concluded. “We have a whole team focused on mitigation and their phones are ringing off the hook.”
There was also a 300 acre conservation area, Solitude Park, in the path of the fire. A local resident who was instrumental in park mitigation, Dick Standaert, spoke of how the fire dropped down to the ground in mitigated areas, allowing crews to safely work and get control of the fire. Overall, they lost 25 acres, but they saved 275, thanks to efforts that reduced the fuel load and created fuel breaks prior to the fire.
As many know, the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council has been working hard with local homeowners with wood roofs to get them qualified for FEMA grant support to replace their wood roofs with safer material. This takes some time.
Our project managers meet with property owners and spend hours creating the necessary documentation. But those concerned with the proper use of government money (all of us), will be happy to note that the extensive documentation ensures that the money is spent on precisely the thing it was intended to be spent on.
And we expect in the not too distant future there will be significantly fewer hazardous roofs in our communities.