Rosie on the House: Can an Arizona house survive a wildfire?

Clay or concrete tiles can help prevent fire damage on a roof.

Everyone was horrified at last summer’s wildfires in California and elsewhere: hundreds of homes burned to the ground.

Arizona doesn’t seem to have as many risks as California or Florida do. There are no major earthquakes or hurricanes. No “tornado alley,” although major tornadoes have hit Coconino County in the recent past. And we can have monsoons and flash floods.

But there certainly are wildfires here in Arizona. In May 2018, for example, the Tinder Fire, northeast of Payson, burned 16,000 acres and destroyed 41 structures, including 29 homes. That fire was started by an abandoned campfire. The California fires last year were largely the result of defective electrical power lines.

Are there fire-safe building materials?

So, in light of the fact that the summer season of wildfires might not be far away, here is a list of materials and techniques that can be used during building to provide more fire protection for an Arizona home:

• Concrete block or concrete slabs, reinforced with steel, are among the best construction materials to use in creating walls for a fire-resistant home.

• Stucco, or portland cement plaster, is a versatile facing material that can be applied to a home’s outside surfaces. It’s a tough exterior that can also be fire-resistant and resistant to rot and fungus, according to manufacturers.

• Roofing can have fire-retardant qualities. One possibility is using a fire-rated underlayment and then covering it with clay or concrete tiles. A metal roof would be even better if it can cover all the wood framing underneath.

• You can even put mini-sprinklers called ember guards in crucial spots on the roof of your house. You can put metal flashing over the wooden fascia boards around your roof.

Of course, nothing can work perfectly we found out from Alexander Pajic, a project manager for ROTH Remodeling, about how these special building materials can stand up to fire and what limits there might be for protection. Pajic had visited the area of the Tinder Fire last year and observed what happened to structures there.

Even a concrete block, concrete slab or brick house can be damaged during a severe fire, he noted. The amount of damage depends on the duration, temperature and location of the fire.

He told us: “It might still be standing, but there can be severe problems with smoke, no matter how it’s built. Noxious fumes and carbonation can affect the bearing capability of concrete. The mortar between concrete blocks will be damaged. Even if a house is still standing, you might have to scrape the paint off the walls and tear down the drywall because of the smoky odor and exposure to noxious fumes. A house can’t totally ‘survive’ a fire.”

In addition, if the concrete is reinforced with steel, the steel can still lose its bearing ability during a fire. Steel studs can become unstable, Pajic said.

Defensible space and fire resistant plants

It can be very important, of course, to build a defensible space around your house to discourage fire from getting too close to you if you live near lots of open space. Defensible space is an area around a structure where fuels and vegetation are cleared extensively to slow the spread of wildfire toward the structure. It’s a space that can allow firefighters to do their job, according to the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Service. Firefighters know that if heavy brush surrounds a house, they probably can’t save it.

The extension service says that even if you clear the area immediately around the house, some landscaping is still possible in this defensible area, but plants should be more widely spaced and lower growing. Plant in small irregular clusters or islands. Use decorative rock and stepping stone pathways. Plant low-growing non-resinous shrubs and ground cover plants. Remove annuals and perennials after they go to seed or when stems become dry.

More recommendations from the Arizona Interagency Wildfire Prevention Group and other groups:

• Plant fire-resistant shrubs and plants. Among them are some Arizona favorites: agaves, aloes, lantanas and yuccas.

• Space plants to slow the spread of fire from plant to plant.

• Keep roofs free of dried leaves and plant debris.

• Keep vegetation more than five feet away from your walls and prune regularly. Trim back tree limbs that might touch your house or roof.

For more do-it-yourself tips, go to rosieonthehouse.com. An Arizona home building and remodeling industry expert for 29 years, Rosie Romero is the host of the syndicated Saturday morning Rosie on the House radio program, heard locally from 8 to 11 a.m. on KNST-AM (790) in Tucson and from 9 to 11 a.m. on KGVY-AM (1080) and -FM (100.7) in Green Valley. Call 888-767-4348.

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