Preventing Barn Burnings – New fire regulations coming!

January 28, 2009

The bulk of the January 27th COWncil meeting (look for our COWncil Roundup and Mootube video soon), was taken up with a study session on “alternative methods for strengthening fire safety code regulations throughout the Town of Woodside.” At the end of the meeting, the COWncil directed Staff to come back with an ordinance that would impose the “Wildland-Urban Interface” State Building Code Chapter 7A, with some modifications, throughout the Town.

Chapter 7A is the strict set of building guidelines that we’ve written about before, and you can read the regulations yourself here. The rules are designed to stop a devastating Oakland Hills type of fires, in the “Wildland-Urban Interface” areas of California. These are the areas where houses are surrounded by trees – like all of Woodside. The 7A regulations already apply to 640 parcels in Woodside due to the state-mandated Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones put into place by the COWncil back in June.

At previous COWncil meetings, there was a lot of pushback against the idea of extending 7A throughout the Town, mostly due to two COWncerns – cost and the worry that the landscaping and “defensible space” requirements of 7A would drastically change the look of Woodside by requiring the removal of a lot of vegetation. The COWncil seems to have brushed off the first COWncern, but seemed to take pains to aCOWmadate the landscaping worries.

The discussion was introduced by Assistant Town Manager Kevin Bryant, who pulled together all the various Woodside fire ordinance ideas from the past few decades, going back to the volunteer group formed in the wake of the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 and the Neville Associates Report prepared in response to the Albion fire of 2002 (the Executive Summary of that report is here and the full report is here). You can read Bryant’s report here (Item 5).

A wide variety of possible changes to the Fire Code were discussed such as requiring Class A fire resistant roofs (as Hillsborough, Los Altos Hills, and Portola Valley do) instead of Class A OR B as currently required in Woodside. Other ideas included requiring fire-resistant attic ventilation; insisting on fire-resistant decking and exterior wall materials; restrictions on driveway and building site slopes; and various landscaping requirements. Fire Marshal Enea was asked her opinion on the cost-benefit of the various options, and was in favor of requiring all of them except for the slope requirements and the landscape requirements as written in 7A.

The COWncil spent quite a long time discussing the various options, with the gist being that they want to require 7A building regulations on new construction throughout the Town of Woodside, but with toned-down landscaping requirements to avoid, as Mayor Mason said, “denuding” the look of the Town. Additionally, they want to require Class A fire-resistant roofs and fireproof gutters whenever a roof is replaced, as well as requiring tempered glass during window replacement. There was some disagreement about requiring fire-resistant attic ventilation when roofs are replaced, with some of the COWncil in favor but with Mayor Mason in opposition because he believes it will be difficult to accomplish on certain older homes. The fire-resistant attic ventilation would be baffled instead of the usual rodent-proof grating, to prevent embers from floating up into an attic and starting a fire there. On Fire Marshal Enea’s recommendation, they decided to not to change the slope requirements from 35% to 30% given the realities of our Town’s geography and the fact that changing the maximum allowed grade of a building site would effectively wipe out any feasible building site on many lots throughout Woodside.

The COWncil unanimously directed Town staff to draft an ordinance that the COWncil will vote on in the future. Several of the COWncil members, made statements that requiring such a stringent code throughout our Town is the right thing to do. Council member Ron Romines, said, “I approach it from the standard that we should make things as fire safe as possible, and pare back [from 7A requirements] if it’s too expensive or burdensome on [homeowners].” He also said that starting from a strong position of implementing 7A throughout the Town would generate discussion in the COWmunity, and stated that it would take the staff and the COWncil out of the job of cherry-picking what fire resistance measures to impose. He also said that the staff should look at wording of the landscape-clearing requirements of 7A since, as Fire Marshal Enea had noted earlier in the meeting, those rules were “pretty disturbing to some people.” Staff was directed to explore wording to set a standard that would help prevent wildfires but wouldn’t totally change the look of the Town.

As we said, the COWncil was unanimous in its support. Interestingly the hardest questions and lingering doubts came from the two COWncil members in the building trades, Mayor Mason and COWncil member Dave Tanner. Clearly Woodside is at high risk of a devastating fire, a risk that increases in drought years like this one. Hopefully by extending 7A throughout Woodside some of the risk of a catastrophic firestorm would be reduced. Such rules need to be practical and clearly the landscaping issue must be addressed in a way that both reduces the fire risk and preserves the ambiance of our Town.

We are glad to see the COWncil is willing to move forward on providing rules to protect all of us from the devastation of fire. While concerns about cost are very legitimate, it is likely that insurance rates would be more favorable if best fire management practices were extended throughout our Town. It also seems fairer than applying different standards to homes that are just across the street from each other but are across a fire-safety line on a map, which is what created the uproar the last time fire regulations were discussed. We are pleased that the COWncil is giving fire prevention the serious consideration it deserves and is providing ample opportunity for all COWs to be herd on this issue.

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