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Medford approves fire-resistant houses

Medford City Council voted unanimously Thursday in favor of following new state building codes designed to make houses in wildfire hazard zones more fire-resistant.

The codes will make houses more flame- and ember-resistant to help avoid the kind of disaster that destroyed the city of Paradise, California, last year.

The new regulations, part of new state building codes, will require greater use of noncombustible or ignition-resistant materials in wildfire hazard areas of the city, which are mainly on the flanks of Roxy Ann Peak.

Some local builders say new homes already are built to a higher standard, and believe the new codes will add burdensome regulations on new construction, but Medford-Fire Rescue officials posted a message on its Facebook page applauding the move.

"We are thankful to the Medford City Council who unanimously voted in favor of an ordinance to make our community safer from wildfire," the post says. "Now new homes built in wildfire hazard zones will have to follow the Oregon Residential Specialty Code ... which makes them more ignition resistant."

“The buildings we’re building today are the safest ever built on the planet,” said Brad Bennington, president of the Builders Association of Southern Oregon. He said the new requirements could add $9,000 to $12,000 to the cost of a new house.

While Bennington said he supports the idea of safe houses, he thinks the existing standards, which are updated periodically, already create extremely fire-resistant houses. Instead of creating regulations for new houses, he said the city should be looking at improving older houses to make them more fire resistant.

After the Camp fire, Bennington said he toured the area to determine the primary reasons a house burned down.

“The No. 1 and No. 2 factors that I could see are the proximity to fuel and volume of fuel available for ignition,” he said.

According to an analysis prepared for the United States Forest Service to determine fire risk in Oregon, Medford ranks third on the list with 29,340 housing units exposed to potential wildfire. Eagle Point ranks sixth, Ashland, ninth, and Central Point 19th. Merlin ranks No. 1 for having the most wildfire risk.

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

Among the new codes are requirements to include finer screen materials used for attic and subfloor vents. Currently most subfloor vents have one-quarter-inch mesh, but the new standard is one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch, which would prevent embers from getting into the crawlspace.

Soffits under the eaves will have fire-resistant material if they are less than 12 feet above the ground, and decks, porches and balconies less than 12 feet off the ground but higher than 30 inches will need to be built of fire-safe materials.

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

The new codes will not affect existing houses.

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

Graphic courtesy Medford Fire-Rescue