When it comes to a home’s ability to withstand fire, the right building materials can make all the difference. That’s why Medford is leading the way in regulating new construction in wildfire-prone areas.
This fall Medford became the first city in Oregon to pass regulations requiring new construction in designated wildfire hazard zones to include ignition-resistant roofing, siding and decking materials.
A 2018 U.S. Forest Service analysis found that nearly 30,000 Medford homes are located in wildfire-prone areas — the second-highest number in the state just behind Bend, which has 40,000.
“We need to start thinking about how we’re building homes so they don’t just ignite in a domino effect like what happened in Paradise, California,” says Medford Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief and Fire Marshall Greg Kleinberg.
Kleinberg introduced a state amendment in 2016 that would allow local jurisdictions — like cities, counties, and fire districts — to adopt new building codes for homes built in designated wildfire zones. He says the amendment mirrors regulations that have existed in California since 2008.
The Oregon Building Codes Division adopted Kleinberg’s proposed amendment this year, thereby allowing Medford and other cities to implement their own rules around new construction in wildfire zones.
“Oregon never really had any substantial wildfire mitigation construction standards in place before January of this year,” Kleinberg says. “This will help — as time goes on and homes are built and older houses are replaced — this will help our wildfire hazard zones to be safer.”
Medford City Council approved its new building codes in mid-October. Now new homes built in the wildfire zones on the outskirts of town will need to include certain wildfire-resistant materials outlined by the city. Kleinberg estimates that these improvements would add a few thousand dollars to the construction costs of a new 1,200 square foot home.
“Not every home in Medford is located in those zones,” Kleinberg says. “They’re basically up in the hillsides.”
That’s not the case for Ashland. The entire city is within a wildfire hazard zone, since councilors expanded the zone last year.
Ashland fire officials plan to propose new wildfire building codes to Ashland City Council in the next few months.
“We can't keep making the problem worse,” says Ashland Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers. “Every time we build a house, it needs to be prepared for wildfire.”
He points to the 2018 Camp Fire as an example, which destroyed 14,000 homes in Paradise. Half of the surviving homes were built to the state’s wildfire construction standards enacted in 2008. Meanwhile, only 18 percent of the homes built before that year survived.
Chambers says construction plays a significant role in a home’s ability to survive a wildfire, but it’s not the only factor. Homeowners also need to maintain a “defensible space” through proper landscaping, like avoiding flammable trees and shrubs. But the most important factor, Chambers says, is maintenance. Ashland fire crews recently returned from working on the Kinkade Fire in Sonoma County, and they were surprised to see newly constructed homes that had burned to the ground.
“In one house in particular, they could see from the remnants of the siding and roofing that it was good construction, but they could tell by the garage that the owners hadn't maintained the fine fuel because the gutters were packed with leaves and needles,” Chambers says. “It doesn't matter what your structure looks like, or the landscaping. Something as simple as raking up leaves or keeping bark mulch away from siding could save a home.”