Rene Byck

Sonoma and Napa are bracing themselves for a difficult fire season with an arsenal of techniques, from innovative building practices to new city ordinances.

Dakota Kim  – June 24, 2019 | Updated July 8, 2019

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 8, residents of Sonoma and Napa saw the first ominous sign of the 2019 wildfire season: plumes from the Sand Fire in the county directly to the east, Yolo County, were clouding their air with smoke. It took seven days to contain the fire 100 percent, during which 2,512 acres burned. Fire season had begun.

Cal Fire says this could be our worst fire season yet. After the fire seasons of 2017 and 2018, Sonoma and Napa officials, residents, and business owners are taking that warning seriously, bracing themselves for a difficult fire season with an arsenal of techniques, from innovative building practices to new city ordinances. It’s an urgent time for many potential homeowners, some of whom find their insurance expiring this October, and other for whom the imminent lift on price-gouging rent restrictions will mean higher rental prices.

Across wine country, fires are top-of-mind for builders. “The lexicon is changing,” architect Brandon Jorgensen says. “The first words out of my clients’ mouths are, ‘We want this place to be fire-resistant, and if we could shelter in place that would be even better.’” 

Understanding Defensible Space

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One time-tested technique almost all building owners look at: landscaping for defensible space, which creates a buffer between a structure on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any wildland area that surround it. Berkeley Professor of Architecture Dana Buntrock says this technique is highly underrated, and urges us to examine the usage of defensible space in a historical context. 

“Traditionally, defensive landscaping was a really important way to defend against fire,” Buntrock says. “The best way to think about it is, if you were building for flooding, you’d build on the highest piece of land available, and then you would think about waterproof structures and finishes and so on.”

Cal Fire has been implementing 35 fire prevention projects across California, building fire breaks that stop the spread to heavily-populated regions. The state agency was delayed by the Sand Fire, but has now begun a 65-acre controlled burn project along Highway 128 in Napa and Yolo counties that will end June 28. These controlled burns, or prescribed fires, manage vegetation in order to prevent high-intensity wildfires.

The cities of Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Napa, and Woodland are working to increase defensible space with weed abatement programs requiring the removal of dry vegetation, weeds, rubbish, and other fire hazards. These programs are enforced through anonymous tip lines, inspections, fines, and even liens on homeowners who don’t pay fines. Most programs will begin property inspections in June and continue throughout the fire season, requiring weeds to be kept trimmed throughout the year. If homeowners can’t do the work themselves, they are encouraged to hire professionals, with Napa’s Fire Department providing a list of contractors.

Though Sonoma County’s population continues to decline after the Tubbs Fire, business owners like Rene Byck of Paradise Ridge Winery are rebuilding. Paradise Ridge’s main building burned down in the Tubbs Fire in 2017. The co-owners broke ground on a rebuild on October 22, 2018, determined to build fire-smart with Wright Contracting, a Santa Rosa and Napa-based firm helping many owners rebuild. 

Defensible space was on Byck’s mind when he acquired 10 sheep to keep the grass low, and as his build continues, he’s considering cows and goats as well, because they eat different plants, and goats can traverse hillsides more easily.

“When the fires happened in 2017, the hill above us had goats on it, and those hills that had goats seemed to be less damaged because the weeds weren’t as high,” Byck says. 

Byck says goatscaping is a growing trend. “The last five to seven years, we see a lot more goats and sheep on the hillsides around us, with white electric fences to keep them in the area the owner wants the grass eaten in.”

Key Players

We have over 3,000 homes in process in Sonoma County alone,” Jennifer Gray Thompson, Executive Director of the Rebuild NorthBay Foundation, says. “In two or three years, we’ll be 70 percent rebuilt, which is unheard of. We need to find ways to help people with rebuilding costs, because if you don’t help people with subsidies, you lose the economic diversity.”

Gray Thompson points to cost-saving measures, following the model of Mendocino County, where officials have been judicious and careful with donations and disbursements. “They built three-bedroom homes for $80,000,” Gray Thompson says. She also points to new construction in Sonoma’s Larkfield and Mark West areas, where 70 percent of home buyers contracted with one builder, Stonefield Home, in order to collectively bring their construction costs down by 30 percent.

APM Homes in Santa Rosa has been one of the early key players in the rebuild of residential homes, building almost 100 homes in the hard-hit Coffey Park neighborhood. Using dual-pane windows and fully-insulated exterior walls and attics, as well as smoke detectors in all bedrooms and main living areas, APM has endeavored to provide cost-effective, fire-retardant homes to those struggling to find the funds to rebuild. The company also provides fire resources and information on applying for local and federal assistance. 

Rethinking Building Materials

Though Paradise Ridge’s central building, which held its winemaking facility and hospitality event center, had a stucco and tile roof, the surrounding wood decks caught fire easily, spreading to the main building. The winery lost 9,000 cases of wine, a year and a half’s work, and their space for weddings and events. Of their 13 structures, 11 were destroyed. Now, Byck says, they are replacing wood decks with concrete patios topped with tile. The concrete roof was replaced with a metal roof, and stone gating cages will go around fiber cement siding and steel columns. The retaining walls, which survived the fire, will be covered with shotcrete. They will own a fire hose and hydrant on property, working to fight the fire and assist first responders in the event of another blaze. 

Wright Consulting says new California Wildland-Urban Interface codes will be followed in the redesign of the main building at Paradise Ridge, with non-combustible fiber-reinforced concrete panels called Oko skins to be added to gable walls.

“The fire was so big, so fast, first responders were saving lives and didn’t have time to put out the fire,” Byck says. “Of course they should save lives first. But if the same scenario happens again, we will be able to help protect our own buildings.”

Not as many wineries burned down as private homes, and architect Brandon Jorgensen has a hypothesis of why. Jorgensen postulates that the vines, full of moisture and surrounding wineries of the Napa Valley on many sides, may have prevented them from burning. “One strategy with wineries is to bury those facilities with vines all around them,” he says. “But over time, you become complacent and think a fire’s not coming and you stop maintaining fixtures and landscaping, so we’ve been trying to develop strategies that are maintenance-free.”

Jorgensen is creating defensible space vertically, not just horizontally. On a current project called the Montecito Forest Residence, he has designed a concrete cantilevered terrace situated high up enough so that a fire could hypothetically burn itself out underneath it, without coming into the house. 

Jorgensen is skeptical of trendy material techniques like building with strawbale, wherein tightly-packed straw bales are insulated with stucco, or ICF (insulated concrete forms), which fills a foam form with poured concrete. 

“The industry is trying to push ICF on me, because it’s super easy to throw up, but it’s not proven what happens to the foam in a wildfire situation,” the architect says. “Foam is highly, highly flammable, and if it’s on the outside of concrete and it’s burning, what does that do to the concrete, and what are the measures to protect the foam?”

Jorgensen says strawbale is cost-prohibitive and dependent on the stucco applied. “Strawbale is great for the planet, but if stucco starts getting too hot and popping off, you’ve got a highly flammable system of straw behind it.”

Instead, Jorgensen recommends two to three layers of protection, for fireproofing, waterproofing, and insulation. Jorgensen outlines his ideal winery build as three layers of fireproofing, and if there must be wood, it should be thick so it has less of a chance to catch fire. The vines are positioned around the winery, with no other brush to burn within defensible space. The base of the winery would be curved and not angled, and the buildings would lack ground or roof gutters to prevent debris accumulation. There would be zero vents or crawl spaces. Sprinklers would feature on the roof, not just inside.

Concrete, steel, and glass may not be the first look a rustic winery turns to, but the architect hopes wine country can learn to make these materials impart the warm, cozy atmosphere they seek, citing Rudd Wines, which features a concrete building that mimics a wood barn.

Joergen is cautiously hopeful for a new product called MGO board, or magnesium oxide board, which he says has a fire rating triple of normal building products, but isn’t yet acceptable to the building code. He’s interested in combining MGO board with double-pane insulated glaze panels and annealed glass. 

“We need a holistic approach of how all these strategies could come together and the building could be incorporated into the landscape better,” Jorgensen says. “It’s a new way of thinking for architects, who would traditionally orient a building to the sun, rather than looking at canyon, wind, and tree placement in relation to fires.”

Location, Location, Location

Where you build should be a factor for homeowners and architects, Buntrock says. “Whether Malibu or Paradise, these fires went through these same places over and over again. I keep going back to the flooding analogy. Houston’s always had a problem with flooding, and major floods are happening more frequently. We’re in the same situation when it comes to fires. There have always been wildfires, and it’s a challenge in urban California, and at the same time it’s gotten worse, and increasing numbers of people are living here.” For that reason, non-profits like the California Chaparral Institute have urged owners not to build or purchase homes in low-density areas on steep slopes in Santa Ana wind corridors.

Byck says knowhow is a big part of the game. When the fires affected electricity functionality, he says some people couldn’t get their cars out of their garages because their garage doors were electrically operated. “We need to make sure we know how to manually open these doors.” 

Communication Strategies

Byck and Buntrock both stress communication as a vital part of the rebuild. Byck notes that the lack of local news stations led him to turn to the mobile app NextDoor to find local information on the Tubbs Fire. While he texted with his managers to ensure safety, he plans on using Slack or another app in the future to get information to employees.

“We’re in a time when everybody wants to know what the next cool innovation is,” Buntrock says. “But generally speaking, there is no artificial construction material that is going to survive fires for a full day. It’s better to have an understanding of how to evacuate.”

Buntrock believes a unified response, social messaging, and community organization are key to surviving wildfires. She cites the deaths of people in Paradise who didn’t have alerts on their phones, or the kinds of phones that receive alerts, and points to the evolution of Australian fire policies after its deadliest fires, during which communication failures resulted in the loss of human lives. “Since then, Australia has become very proactive about dealing with the wildfire threat. People felt like fire danger was a problem they could and should address, and we’re still very much in the early stages of that.”

The problem, Buntrock says, is that governmental and wine industry leaders haven’t developed a serious, unified response to California wildfires, as in Australia. “Right now, everything is piecemeal and private, but the thing about fire safety is you need everyone on board. If some people have opted out, then you’re creating jumping spots for fire to move into environments. California is this real can-do environment, with a lot of novel approaches and new technologies. All we have to do as a state is set our minds to it and we can make really proactive change and develop a unified response, but somehow with wildfires we haven’t done that.”

Gray Thompson’s foundation is endeavoring to build such a unified response across the North Bay and the nation. To complete that endeavor, she mentions three vital items: block captains, who communicate between residents and the fire department; constant media attention and vigilance; and the need for wireless communications that work during a fire or other catastrophes. 

“People may be tired of hearing about fires, since they’re hearing about the problems instead of the solutions,” Gray Thompson says. “We need the media to come back and continuously check on it, to continue to tell our story inside our community. We have held our cohesion together because we have block captains, and The Press-Democrat is dedicated to writing about our rebuild every month.”

Gray Thompson says that Rebuild North Bay is working with community leaders and telecommunications companies to find ways to maintain cell phone coverage and wifi during wildfires, so that social media can provide valuable information in times of crisis.

“We need solutions now, whether it’s satellite balloons, or talking to Amazon about their wireless system, which we’re working on doing,” Gray Thompson says.

Gray Thompson is optimistic about the timing of the rebuild, and what wine country can share with the rest of the world to survive and thrive despite wildfires.

“We’ve found a way to rebuild and we’re going to do it under 10 years, probably seven years, and we’re going to rebuild better,” Jennifer Gray Thompson says. “We’re going to pay it forward and share what we’ve learned with other communities.”