Homeowners Build Home Designed to Withstand Wildfires

By ANN BUTLER, The Durango Herald | October 19, 2015

In 2002, while the Missionary Ridge Fire was burning almost 73,000 acres in southwest Colorado, the Front Range was closely watching the Hayman Fire, which burned more than 138,000 acres.

For Jeff Bork and his wife, Pat Lavin, who were living in Summit County at the time, the Hayman Fire was a wake-up call. Lessons learned from performing fire mitigation at their home there were part of their design process when they built their new home in Durango.

While the couple’s home is in Durango city limits, it’s located on the far western side of town near the Ned Overend Mountain Park, and the 10-acre parcel was covered with gambel oak when they purchased it.

“We have built our house to maximize its ability to survive a ground or crown wildfire,” Bork told a group of FireWise participants during a recent tour. “All materials are noncombustible or ignition-resistant, so it’s compatible with living in this urban-wildland interface.”

FireWise of Southwest Colorado works on a principle of neighbors working with neighbors to increase fire mitigation as well as providing assistance such as a wood chipper program to achieve it.

Pam Wilson, executive director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado, had recently attended the Colorado Wildfire and Mitigation Conference in Snowmass where they heard from Jack Cohen, a research physical scientist with the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana.

Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA
Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA

“He has gone out on every large wildfire where homes were lost in the last 10 to 15 years,” Wilson said. “Most homes are lost after firefighters have left because no evidence of smoke or flames is visible. But embers have landed in something flammable, and they don’t instantly burst into flames.”

Cohen’s talk reinforced something Wilson already knew.

“Hearing him say it reminded me we need to get back to making sure people understand we need to take a home-ignition approach instead of a fire-control approach,” she said. “People need to be thinking where are the embers going to come from, what are the vulnerable parts of my home? That’s what got me so intrigued about Jeff and Pat’s approach, because they planned it from every aspect.”

Every detail about the Bork/Lavin home, from design to materials, was thought out from either a fire-defense or energy-efficiency aspect.

The house is surrounded by concrete patios and sidewalks, with a concrete pad in front of the garage, then several feet of bare dirt or gravel. The roof and trellises are metal and exterior siding is metal, stucco, square steel tiles and fiber cement board, while the insulation is noncombustible rockwool.

“I was going to write them up for the wood chips used as mulch in a couple of places,” said Jigger Staby, who has completed FireWise’s Home Ignition Zone evaluation class and was on the tour, “and then I realized that would only be a problem if they had anything that would burn.”

The house has no ventilated attic or crawlspace, which is where embers can often enter a home.

“We have a simple roof design,” Bork said. “While our roofs are at different heights, all of them are at a 3:12 pitch. There are no gables or other complex configurations that can trap the fire’s heat or collect burning embers.”

The only nonelectrical appliance in the house is a propane-fueled fireplace. The propane tank is buried 62 feet from the northeast corner of the garage, twice as far as the Colorado State Forest Service recommendation, and buried behind a rock retaining wall beneath at least 5 feet of nonflammable material.

It added about $12,000 to the cost of the home, but the structure has an interior sprinkler system with 30 sprinkler heads. A 300-gallon water-storage tank in the house, with steel pipes containing antifreeze, can provide 10 minutes of fire suppression.

In spite of all these precautions and more, the couple was turned down twice for fire insurance, until Bork wrote a four-page letter detailing all the efforts made to reduce the fire risk of the home.

And he’s not done.

“I still have several years of fire mitigation work to do,” he said.

Southwest Colorado got lucky this year with all the rain in May, June and July, so there really wasn’t a fire season this year, Wilson said.

“People think it’s in a drought when the fire season is worst,” Wilson said, “but after a growing season like this, when it’s so lush and the grass is thigh high, there will be so much fuel just lying there ready to burn next year.”

Cutting back those fuels this fall before snow flies is a good idea, she said, because the next fire season will likely start in the spring.

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