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Building wildfire-resistant homes can be affordable, new study shows


Thousands of people are under evacuation orders in Northern California as the McKinney fire continues to spread. That community could be joining dozens of others that have had to rebuild in recent years. In California, many homes have to use wildfire-resistant materials under state law. Other wildfire-prone states don't have the same requirements. The homebuilding industry has argued that fireproofing is too expensive, but a new study finds it can be affordable.

And here to tell us more about that is Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate team. Hey, Lauren.


CHANG: All right. So give us an idea here of what kinds of features can make a home more fire resistant.

SOMMER: So there's some obvious stuff, right? You know, the big parts of a house - the roof, the siding - they're built with materials that resist ignition - so, you know, no wood roofs. But there is little things that can make a difference. You know, most attics have those little openings - their vents.

CHANG: Yeah.

SOMMER: And those need to be covered in kind of this mesh to prevent embers from coming into the house because the majority of homes actually aren't ignited by the fire, you know, burning right up to the front door. It's that rain of embers that gets blown ahead of the fire...

CHANG: Yeah.

SOMMER: ...And they land on the house.

CHANG: Exactly. But, I mean, roofs and siding - they can be expensive already, even when they're not tailored to better withstand fire. So how much more expensive are these features that you're talking about?

SOMMER: Yeah, it's not as much as you might think. So to kind of meet a standard wildfire building code - and that's like one that California has for homes in risky areas - study shows that can be done at basically the same cost as not doing it. And then a new study looks at measures beyond that, which was done by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. It's a research group that actually builds test houses to see how they burn. They looked at things like making sure you have gravel and not mulch within 5 feet of your house or putting on a metal roof. Measures like that add between 2% and 13% to the cost of a new home, which is what Roy Wright, the group's CEO, told me.

ROY WRIGHT: It absolutely changes the ability for that home to remain insurable and to avoid the kind of damages that too many communities across the West are now experiencing.

CHANG: OK, that sounds reassuring, but how much safer do these building standards actually make a house? Like, would that mean your house would be left standing after a wildfire?

SOMMER: There - yeah, there's no guarantees, unfortunately - right? - you know, especially with the wildfires over the last few years, you know, which have been supercharged by these hot and dry conditions in a changing climate. But one study found in California - you know, which has had these wildfire building codes for more than a decade - those houses were 40% less likely to be destroyed compared to older homes.

CHANG: Wow. OK, so are more states thinking about adopting building codes similar to California's?

SOMMER: So not many. Only three other states have wildfire codes. Oregon is also writing one right now. But in states like Colorado, the Home Builders Association has opposed the codes, you know, saying that it makes houses too pricey or that, you know, local areas should decide for themselves. Wright says public officials, by choosing that, are just putting all that risk on homeowners.

WRIGHT: You can choose to build well today to withstand what we know is coming, or you can deal with the devastation and displacement that comes down the road.

SOMMER: And it can actually pay off, too, because insurance companies will give a discount to homes that are built this way. So it can really add up.

CHANG: That is Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate team. Thank you so much, Lauren.

SOMMER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.