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Southern California's fires have people thinking about building coats. Activists and wildfire experts say it's time to force developers to build homes with heat-resistant windows and lightweight concrete roofs.

NPR's John Nielsen reports.

JOHN NIELSEN: Wildfires, like arsonists, tend to do their worst when nobody is looking. Wildfire experts like James Smalley say that's true because it is usually not the giant wall of flames that sets a house on fire. It's the red hot embers that start falling after everyone's evacuated and the fire has moved on.

Mr. JAMES SMALLEY (NFPA National Fire Protection Association): And it's an ember shower. It's not just one or two embers; it's thousands of embers that are pouring down from the fire that could be a mile off, and it's that shower of those embers that create just those little, tiny ignitions that grow and grow and grow over a period of a half hour to two hours after the flame front has passed. And that's what ignites the house.

NIELSEN: Smalley works for Firewise, the national non-profit group that gets most its funding from the U.S. Forest Service. Since last weekend, he's been tracking residential blazes linked to Southern California's wildfires.

Residents returning to those partly burnt-out neighborhoods may think the fires picked their targets randomly, but aerial photographs say otherwise, according to Smalley.

Mr. SMALLEY: When you look at an aerial photograph, you'll see block after block of foundations and foundations; and in between those foundations you'll see live vegetation. What that indicates is that the house was more combustible than the trees.

NIELSEN: Smalley says these are the kinds of homes that help turn wildfires into regional disasters. Some of them have dried-out wooden roofs that burst into flames when red hot embers land on them. Others have incendiary decks and unscreened vents that let embers float all the way into the living room.

Smalley doesn't think it should be legal to build homes like these in Southern California anymore, not when there are virtually fire-proof alternatives available at every hardware store.

Mr. SMALLEY: Could be tile, could be slate. There's concrete composites and other kinds of composites that can be used for decking and siding as well. And the advantage is that they're more ignition-resistant, lower maintenance, and they last longer.

NIELSEN: Add some heat-resistant windows and a buffer zone that separates your house from dried-out trees and bushes, what you've got at that point is a home nine times as likely to survive a passing wildfire, according to Ronnie Coleman, the former fire marshal for the state of California. He says the only catch comes if your neighbors live in firetraps.

Mr. RONNIE COLEMAN (Former Fire Chief, Santa Rosa, California): A good example would be, let's say that somebody did everything we asked him to do and the houses on both side of them did nothing we asked them to do. Guess what happens? You lose the house.

NIELSEN: Developers in Southern California have voluntarily built thousands of these kinds of homes in recent years, but so far they have strenuously opposed attempts to make the fire-safe construction practices mandatory.

A plan to do just that in San Diego fizzled a few years ago when builders said it could raise home price by several thousand dollars. Coleman says he wouldn't be surprised to hear that argument repeat itself in the near future.

Mr. COLEMAN: In California, the idea that you mandate something is onerous to many, many different levels. But by the same token, you talk about expense. I can't help but think that if everybody who lost their - those 1,500 houses over the last couple of days, if they had been given a chance to invest $5,000 to prevent that from happening, they would have done so. They're just not motivated to do so until it's too late.

NIELSEN: Coleman says the one thing he is sure of is that the need for these kinds of homes will keep growing in the years ahead as expanding suburbs move deeper and deeper into areas known mostly for the fires they produce.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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