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Fire safety could be a selling point for homes

Anne-Allen_White-Bckgrnd_WEBWith snow in the mountains and Treasure Valley temperatures in the soggy range, mid-winter is a down time of sorts for firefighters.

But the spring construction season is a good time to start preparing for fires. If the past is any measure, wildfires are going to get worse, especially in the western United States. And they’re bad as it is. In a typical year, 7 to 9 million acres burn each year, and thousands of structures are lost, according to Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management in Boise.

Boise is home to the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, which coordinates wildland firefighting around the country. The NIFC also works on fire mitigation and prevention. Lately, it has taken to promoting fire-conscious construction practices as an amenity that developers can use in marketing their buildings. But it’s not clear how closely developers are taking their advice to heart.

The NIFC’s materials for homeowners and homebuilders promotes the use of fire-resistant materials for the roof and exterior, such as tile, slate, sheet iron or stone. It also encourages local officials to pass ordinances requiring fire-safe building materials in areas known as the urban-wildland interface, such as Sun Valley, where the 100,000-acre Beaver Creek fire forced the evacuation of nearly 2,000 homes last summer.

Meanwhile, groups like the National Fire Prevention Association teach homeowners to take responsibility for protecting their homes. The group provides training from state forest departments and the USDA Forest Service.

Fire behavior is unpredictable, so it’s difficult for groups like NIFC to come up with a one-size-fits-all template for fire-safe development. Eardley noted that every home site is different. Nonetheless, NIFC has gathered about 200 tips for making subdivisions and homes more fire-resistant.

One of the most important: According to the NIFC, most homes that burn down in wildfires aren’t ignited by flames, but by embers that land nearby. Many homes burn down hours after a wildfire has passed, Eardley said. He recommended homebuilders talk to a professional early on about landscaping options, building materials, the area’s fire history, and even identifying the most likely direction that a fast-moving wildlife would come from.

For developers and homeowners, a good place to start is Idaho Firewise, an effort by many state and federal agencies that offers seminars and other information this spring.

It seems to take a fire to wake up homeowners to the dangers in their own yard, said Kurt McClenny, the deputy chief fire marshal in Eagle, where a fire in 2010 forced the evacuation of several homes.

“Three years ago, after the fire got everyone’s attention, my phone was ringing off the hook with, ’What can I do, can you come out and give me suggestions?’’” McClenny said. “But you know, after a period of time, they don’t even think about it.”

As fire seasons increase in severity, fire prevention professionals around the country are trying to publicize the idea that fire safety should be an amenity advertised in homebuilding and home sales as commonly as square footage. They’d like real estate developers and agents to pitch fire safety measures as an asset for homes.

But they’re not there yet.

Part of the reason might be that nobody wants to raise the issue, said Pat Durland, a Boise fire mitigation consultant who works closely with insurance companies.

“If I was selling homes, I am not sure I’d want to open up that conversation with one house, because the question from my client would be, ‘How come the other one I like isn’t in a Firewise community?” Durland said. “Now all of a sudden I’m compromising the number of properties they might be interested in.”

“It isn’t something that people are asking for,” said Steve Martinez, former state president of the Building Contractors Association of Idaho and the owner of Tradewinds Building Company, Inc. “The only time people think about it typically is when it’s mandated.”

Martinez said he’s probably done one home in the last 20 years when someone asked for wildfire safety measures to be included in the home construction when they weren’t required.

But it’s coming up in some places.

Ed Camp, a Realtor whose Eagle home was threatened by fire in 2010, said homeowners don’t often bring up fire safety with him. But Camp said he talks about it a lot.

“We live in a desert, so it’s something people should be aware of,” Camp said.

“Fire safety is a selling point,” Eardley said. “It certainly would be for me.”

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.