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Get Fired Up about Protecting Your Home

Although devoid of decorative landscaping, Thompson’s rebuilt home is out of harm’s way, he says, because he removed all trees near the house.

Wildfire season is around the corner. Are you ready?

A mountain resident who lost two homes to fire tells how to safeguard your investment.

 

BY MARK COLLINS

People who have lived and fought fires in the foothills above Boulder for more than 30 years remember a time when the greatest danger came from inside a house.

protect your home1It’s a funny story up here in the Fire Department community,” says Jack Thompson, who has lived on Sugarloaf Mountain for 35 years. “When people first moved up here in the fifties and sixties, if your house burned down it was because of your stove.”

The devastating wildfires that destroy whole neighborhoods and upend lives didn’t start until 1989. Wildfires west of Boulder weren’t unheard of before then, of course. They occur naturally, and Boulder County has had its share of them.

But, according to Boulder County officials, as the population increased in the county’s mountain communities, fire-suppression tactics led to vegetation densities 10 to 100 times their natural state in many areas. Rapid forest growth and the growing human population, along with drought conditions, high summer temperatures and notorious winds, have led to increasingly treacherous fires in recent decades.

Thompson lost his home in the county’s first major wildfire, the Black Tiger Fire in 1989. At the time, it was the most devastating fire in terms of property loss in the state’s history, consuming 44 homes or structures. Those totals were obliterated in 2010 when the Fourmile Fire burned 169 homes. Thompson’s home, a few ridges away from the house he lost in 1989, was one of them. Undeterred, Thompson rebuilt on the 15 acres he owns on Sugarloaf.

Ask him if he’s confident he won’t lose a third home to wildfire and Thompson doesn’t hesitate: “Absolutely.” After losing two homes to fires burning across Sugarloaf’s populated ridges, how can Thompson be so confident? Simple—he removed the fuel.

Although devoid of decorative landscaping, Thompson’s rebuilt home is out of harm’s way, he says, because he removed all trees near the house.
Although devoid of decorative landscaping, Thompson’s rebuilt home is out of harm’s way, he says, because he removed all trees near the house.

A building contractor with 37 years’ experience and owner of Satinwood Construction, Thompson rebuilt without wood siding, wood roofing or wood decking. His warm and inviting 3,600-square-foot house features a handsome stucco-and-stone exterior. The only visible wood is a small pergola.

Perhaps even more significant—in terms of fire mitigation—is the fact that Thompson felled all the trees on the 15 acres where his home sits. That act alone downgraded his house from being located in an “extreme” fire danger area to “moderate.” Thompson hired Old Tyme Lumber in Boulder to turn many of the felled trees into flooring and beams for the interior of his new home.

Thompson and his wife, Michele Nahas, were out of town when the Fourmile Fire struck on Labor Day 2010. A neighbor retrieved their computers and Thompson’s briefcase and truck, but all else was lost. What happened next was all too familiar to Thompson. Having endured the Black Tiger Fire 21 years earlier, he says that experience dealing with insurance adjusters helped him and Michele recover their entire policy following the Fourmile Fire.

But it wasn’t easy.

Jack Thompson’s previous Sugarloaf home (pictured above in the trees) was completely surrounded by pines that succumbed to the Fourmile Fire, along with his home—the second one he’s lost to wildfire.
Jack Thompson’s previous Sugarloaf home (pictured above in the trees) was completely surrounded by pines that succumbed to the Fourmile Fire, along with his home—the second one he’s lost to wildfire.
It’s in the Details

The couple spent three months detailing their belongings in order to file a personal-property insurance claim. “You have to go room by room, drawer by drawer, shelf by shelf, and remember what was there,” Thompson says.

They ended up with 62 single-spaced pages’ worth of items. The first time the couple submitted the itemized list, the insurance company said they’d pay 48 percent of it. Fifteen months of persistence later, however, Thompson got the couple’s entire losses covered. (Also recommended: Videotape all belongings and store the tape in a safe-deposit box, along with a list of serial numbers on expensive electronics.)

Rustic ceiling beams in the living room (below) and kitchen (left), along with the kitchen floors, came from felled trees on Thompson’s 15 acres that he reclaimed and milled.
Rustic ceiling beams in the living room and kitchen, along with the kitchen floors, came from felled trees on Thompson’s 15 acres that he reclaimed and milled.

“We did it with a lot of diligence,” Thompson says of their list. “United Policyholders (a homeowners’ advocacy group; www.uphelp.org) came and gave us a lot of pointers. They were fantastic. They gave us strategies. But, if you need to, you can go to a company that fights insurance companies. They take 10 percent.”

Thompson’s most emphatic advice to those who live in wildfire areas is this: “You need to find out what it’s going to cost to rebuild your home,” he says. Most homeowner policies, he says, are for less than the cost to rebuild. That’s because most loss claims aren’t for catastrophic events; they’re for a bad refrigerator drain line or backed-up plumbing, and the like.

Make sure your premium covers the total cost to rebuild. Thompson learned that after the Black Tiger Fire. “When I bought (the second house on Sugarloaf), I had it insured and upgraded to what I thought it would cost to rebuild it. And you need to review the policy every couple of years, so you know that you’re fully covered.”

After that, it’s up to the homeowner to collect, even when insurance companies give you the runaround. “We got 100 percent of all of our insurance policy,”Thompson says, “because we were relentless.”

protect your home5

Top 10 Construction Tips for Fire Safety

Follow these tips when building a home in the mountains.

01 Defensible Zones/Reduced Fuel

Creating fire breaks within 100 feet of the home, removing fuel sources (dead foliage, etc.) and having fire-wise landscaping all help protect your home from direct flame exposure. Effective tree, shrub and foliage removal, along with noncombustible landscaping features, such as stone patios and gravel borders around the foundation, is critical.

02 Ignition-Resistant Materials

When possible, choose noncombustible exterior materials like stone, stucco, brick, metal, concrete and fiber cement board. If using natural materials like wood, use larger dimensions (6-by-6-inch columns and beams, and 3-by-8-inch joists), as they’re harder to ignite.

03 Roof & Wall Intersections

The underside of eaves and soffits is a common place for fires to begin when superheated air and flames impinge on them. Make these weak spots as fire-resistant as possible, and avoid using combustible materials on soffits and eaves.

04 Simple Geometry

Architecture free of nooks, niches and complex corners helps prevent dead vegetation from accumulating on the house or roof. Stray foliage and brush that collects on the structure provides easy fuel for a fire.

05 Decks, Appendages & Projections

Ignition-resistant decking and overhang materials and proper construction are paramount. Decks, appendages and projections should be made of non­combust­ible materials close to the ground. Avoid “floating” decks, which helps minimize direct flame contact from below while eliminating spaces where dead vegetation and other fuels can accumulate.

06 Airtight Construction

A tightly sealed structure is far less susceptible to a fire’s superheated air. When extreme exterior temperatures exist, a “leaky” house leaves the interior more vulnerable to heat gain than a properly sealed house. Airtight construction also reduces spark and ember intrusion.

07 Emergency Access

Adequate access to the house, a clearly posted address, fire hydrants, sprinkler systems, cisterns and even pools greatly assist emergency workers and save valuable time in a fire.

08 High-Performance Windows

Double-paned, low-E windows with low solar-heat-gain coefficient help protect against heat accumulation indoors by blocking radiant heat and are more likely to remain intact in a fire. Additionally, fire-resistant frames like fiberglass and metal help protect against fire damage. Tempered glass is vastly superior in fires.

09 Unvented Attic and Crawl Spaces

Eliminating venting of attics and crawl spaces is extremely helpful in reducing ember intrusion and achieving a tight building envelope.

10 Property Maintenance

No matter how well your house resists fire, maintenance is critical to keeping your house that way. Items such as dead vegetation on the roof, gutters and walls all require occasional removal, and trees and shrubs must remain well trimmed to limit fuel sources.

Source: Rodwin Architecture/Skycastle Homes (www.rodwinarch.com), a design/build firm specializing in fire-resistant,
green custom homes in Boulder County

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