Activists and wildfire experts in Southern California say it's time to start forcing developers to build fire-resistant homes, with heat-resistant windows and lightweight concrete roofs.
Wildfires, like arsonists, tend to do their worst when no one is looking. It's usually not a giant wall of flame that sets a house on fire, says James Smalley of Firewise, a national non-profit group. Red-hot embers that fall after everyone has evacuated are a major danger.
"And it's an ember shower," Smalley says. "It's not one or two embers. It's thousands of embers from a fire that could be a mile off."
From the shower come "tiny ignitions that grow and grow for two hours after the flame front has passed," Smalley says, adding: "That's what ignites the house."
Since last weekend, Smalley has been tracking residential blazes linked to Southern California's wildfires in his work for Firewise, which gets most of its funding from the U.S. Forest Service.
Residents returning to those partly burnt-out neighborhoods may think the fires picked their targets randomly, but the aerial photographs say otherwise, according to Smalley.
"When you look at an aerial photograph you'll see block after block of foundation and foundation and in between those foundations you'll see live vegetation. What that says is that the house was more combustible than the trees, than the vegetation," Smalley said.
Smalley said these are the kinds of homes that help turn wildfires into regional disasters. Some have dried-out wooden roofs that burst into flames when embers land on them. Others have incendiary decks and unscreened vents that let the embers float all the way into the house, like great, big floating matches.
Smalley does not think it should it be legal to build homes like these in Southern California anymore, especially since there are virtually fireproof alternative building materials available at every hardware store.
"Could be tile, could be slate," Smalley says of the alternatives. "There's concrete and other kinds of composites that could be used for decking and siding, as well."
Using those materials, including heat-resistant windows, and clearing a buffer zone that separates the house from dried trees and bushes can make a home nine times more likely to survive a passing wildflire, according to Ronnie Coleman, the former fire marshal for the state of California.
The only catch, he said, comes if your neighbors live in firetraps.
"Let's say somebody did everything we asked them to do and the people on either side did nothing we asked them to," Coleman says. "Guess what happens? You lose the house."
Developers in Southern California have voluntarily built thousands of these kinds of homes in recent years. But, so far, they have opposed attempts to make the fire-safe construction regulations mandatory.
A plan to do just that in San Diego fizzled recently when builders said it could raise home prices by several thousand dollars.
Coleman said he would not be surprised to hear that argument repeat itself in the near future.
"In California, the idea that you mandate something is onerous on many, many different levels," Coleman concedes, but adds: "I can't help but think that if everybody who lost those 1,500 houses over the last couple of days — if they had had a chance to invest $5,000 to prevent that from happening, they would have done so. They're just not motivated until it's too late."
Coleman says he is certain that the need for these kinds of houses will keep growing in the years ahead, as expanding suburbs move deeper into areas known mostly for the fires they produce.