Fire-Resistant Is Not Fire-Proof, California Homeowners Discover California has some of the strictest building codes in the country for homes built in areas with wildfire risk. But recent fires show that even the most fire-resistant homes will burn.

Fire-Resistant Is Not Fire-Proof, California Homeowners Discover

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the causes of climate migration - losing your home. In California, any new home built in an area where the risk of wildfire is high has to meet strict state building codes designed to make the homes less likely to burn. The building codes are a national model. But over the past two years, wildfires have destroyed thousands of homes, including many that were supposed to withstand the fire. KPCC's Emily Guerin reports from Ventura in Southern California.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: A year ago, Nancy Bohman fled her house in the Ventura foothills when the Thomas Fire broke out. She ended up at her mother-in-law's place, where, the next morning, she turned on the TV.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Welcomed at those evacuation centers with open arms...

GUERIN: Her neighbor's house was completely on fire. Firefighters were standing in her driveway, hosing down the garage. She made this recording on her phone.

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NANCY BOHMAN: Come on, boys. Save our house. Please.

GUERIN: The Thomas Fire roared through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. It's now the second-largest fire in state history. Bohman's house survived but with bad smoke damage. But 4 of the 9 houses on her street were gone.

So were you surprised that these houses burned?

BOHMAN: Totally shocked - totally blown away because - look. It's stucco and a concrete roof.

GUERIN: She wasn't the only one who was surprised. Ventura Fire Marshal Joe Morelli said the devastation on Bohman's street really stood out to him.

JOE MORELLI: What I noticed on that street is that the homes appeared to be of newer construction. Half were there, and half were gone.

GUERIN: So he started looking to see if they had fire-resistant features, which are required on all homes built after 2008 in high-fire-risk areas.

MORELLI: Seven-eighths-inch stucco, attic, vents and eaves - the roof is class-A material - and then wire mesh over attic vents and dual-pane windows.

GUERIN: Now, this was a brand-new subdivision. So it had all that stuff. And according to data from the state's fire agency, Cal Fire, 80 percent of houses destroyed in the Thomas Fire had fire-resistant exteriors. And 90 percent had fire-resistant roofs. We still don't have data from the big fires this fall. But it's becoming increasingly clear that houses built in risky places are impossible to fireproof. Alexandra Syphard is a fire ecologist with the Conservation Biology Institute.

ALEXANDRA SYPHARD: You can make a big difference in increasing the potential safety of your house, but you can't guarantee that it's not going to burn.

GUERIN: Her research has found that where you build your house, not what it's made of, is the biggest factor in determining whether it will burn. Approving new housing development in California is done by cities and counties. And these days, most of that new development is in high-fire-risk areas. Pete Munoa with Cal Fire says it's really only academics who are discussing giving the state more control over where houses are built.

PETE MUNOA: They talk about that all the time. They shouldn't be building there, period - is what I've heard a few of the professors state. And OK. That's easier said than done. Where do you put those folks? And how do you compensate them for that?

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GUERIN: Meanwhile, in Ventura, the houses that burned in the Thomas Fire are already being rebuilt in the exact same places, areas with high fire risk. Yolanda Bundy is the chief building official with the city. And she says Ventura is just not focused on changing building codes or overhauling land-use planning.

YOLANDA BUNDY: Right now all their efforts are concentrated on helping people rebuild their home, not to create more rules or regulations or more processes.

GUERIN: And that, some fire scientists say, means we're still not learning from our mistakes. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin in Ventura.

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