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Safer homes in danger zones

Medford dodged a bullet in 2009 when a wildfire erupted on the flanks of Roxy Ann Peak that had the potential to unleash the kind of destruction that ravaged the city of Paradise, California, last fall.

To help decrease the potential for a catastrophic wildfire in Medford, fire officials are seeking tougher building codes that would lessen the chance that a house — or a neighborhood — ignites when embers start flying.

The cost of up to $2,500 to make a new house more fire-resistant is being questioned by the Builders Association of Southern Oregon.

“I would submit to you that the homes that are newer are not experiencing any of these fire losses,” said Brad Bennington, president of the association. “We have safer materials than we’ve ever had. The homes we’re building today are the safest buildings on the planet.”

Bennington said he’d be more interested in city officials looking at ways to help homeowners update older houses with new siding and other more fire-resistant materials rather than adding costs onto new construction.

The Deer Ridge fire on Roxy Ann burned through 633 acres in two hours in 2009, but quick work by firefighters resulted in no loss of structures. But the Camp fire in Paradise last fall destroyed 14,000 houses, and communities on the West Coast saw it as a wake-up call.

Bennington, who plans to go to Paradise soon, said he will be gathering more information to find out how well newer houses fared compared to older houses. So far, Bennington has heard that the newer houses in Paradise did better than the older ones.

The Medford City Council has agreed to consider changing building codes for houses in wildfire danger zones, which roughly encompass 1,500 existing houses mostly to the east of Foothill Road. Another 900 houses on the west side near South Stage Road are also in a wildfire danger zone. The new codes would not affect existing houses.

“This isn’t making homes fireproof,” said Medford Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg. “It’s just making them more fire-resistant.”

Many of the changes to building codes, already adopted by the state but required to be adopted by local cities to take effect, include many features already on most new houses, such as cement-based siding, composition shingle roofs and dual-glazed windows. Other materials are also allowed if they have been tested for fire resistance. California already has adopted tough standards for new houses in wildfire hazard zones.

Some of the proposals include finer screen materials used for attic and subfloor vents. Currently most subfloor vents have one-quarter-inch mesh, but the new standard would be one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch, which would prevent embers from getting into the crawlspace. Soffits under the eaves would have fire-resistant material if they are 12 feet or more above the ground, and also feature the smaller mesh screens to prevent embers from flying into the attic.

Rain gutters would have to have screens that prevent the buildup of combustible materials.

“These are simple steps that will make a house more fire-resistant,” Kleinberg said.

While state officials estimate the upgrades on a new house would add another $2,500, Kleinberg said his own estimates peg the cost at about $2,000 or less. Bennington said the actual costs could be higher.

Other communities such as Ashland and the service area of Jackson County Fire District 3 are looking at developing similar building code standards, Kleinberg said.

He said he’s installed screens on his own gutters, and also put in a fire sprinkler system inside his house.

All these steps prevent the domino effect that Paradise saw, where one house on fire would spread to the next house, and so on.

“We want our communities safe, but we want our firefighters safe as well,” Kleinberg said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Firefighters battle flames off Lone Pine Road as the Deer Ridge fire burned 633 acres in east Medford in 2009. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune