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Rebuilding homes in areas destroyed by wildfires is largely unregulated in most states

Rebuilding homes in areas destroyed by wildfires is largely unregulated in most states
Posted at 5:41 PM, Feb 25, 2021

2020 brought some of the most intense wildfires in recent U.S. history. As damaged towns rebuild, those impacted years before are leading the way.

Pat Avila and her husband live in Santa Rosa, California. They’ve been in the same neighborhood for more than 20 years. But the four walls they live in now weren’t what stood here just four years ago.

“When the fire came three and a half years ago, it destroyed all 46 homes, underground, everything. Everything was gone,” Avila said.

The Tubbs Fire -- one of many wildfires that has raged through Northern California -- destroyed the whole neighborhood. It was one of the worst fires in state history at the time.

“It was a very windy day,” Avila said. “And it destroyed over 5,000 homes.” They lost everything but a small tray of trinkets found in the debris.

And that hasn’t stopped them from rebuilding right on the same plot of land.

“We decided that we were going to rebuild, and we were going to rebuild to the highest efficiencies and highest fire safe standards possible,” John Farrow, owner of Farrow Commercial Construction, said. He’s in charge of rebuilding this neighborhood.

Now, the community is almost completely rebuilt, but if you take a closer look these homes stand out for a few reasons.

“Spray foam insulation, conditioned attic spaces,” Farrow said as he pointed out on a walk through of one of the homes.

Indoor sprinkler systems, metal roofs, fire resistant exteriors -- all of these features help to create a more fire resistant structure.

“You're never going to be able to build a fireproof structure but you can get really close,” he said.

However, if you take a look at the codes, rebuilding to these standards isn’t required.

“California is very much leading what we’re doing here in the United States in that in their statewide building code…they have a chapter very specifically on wildfire resistant construction,” Daniel Gorham, a research engineer for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, said. The nonprofit researches building safety.

“The code exists and how to build wildlife resistant construction exists in the code, but whether or not you're required to build to it or not kind of takes another layer,” he explained. Yet, Gorham said California is a leader in this space.

“Definitely room for improvement here in thinking about how we implement code and how we develop them, and how we enforce them both before disaster and rebuilding after,” he said.

In 2020, more than 10,000 structures were damaged or destroyed by wildfires in California alone, according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

Homes destroyed by wildfires aren’t just a California problem.

“Wildfire definitely isn't just a west coast thing,” Gorham said.

And with new research and understanding comes homes that have a greater chance of standing mother nature.

“It can happen anywhere and it has. And people are like ‘oh, I've got to move here and there and the other place,' just stay and rebuild,” Avila said.