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Fire Officials Lead Attack on Wooden Roofs

Safety: County seeks funds to take aerial photos of high-risk homes, and to pay subsidies for replacing shake shingles.


As a brush fire raged in the Verdugo Mountains above Glendale and Burbank earlier this month, San Gabriel Fire Department Capt. John Hostetter pointed to the principal source of worry on the evacuated street he had come to protect.

It was a wood-shingled roof--tasteful, a tad rustic, and perhaps, if untreated with modern fire retardants, the riskiest feature for a home in a fire hazard area.

"If the wind sends the flames over this ridge," said Hostetter, nodding to the top of a cream-colored ranch house, "that one's in trouble."

Firefighters are not fans of wooden roofs. Unless treated with flame retardants, the roofs easily catch fire and help spread a fast-moving blaze. And though high insurance rates and recent government policies attempt to dissuade homeowners from keeping wood roofs, fire officials say there are still thousands of them in the paths of future brush fires in Los Angeles County.

County Fire Department officials recently requested $25,000 in federal funds for aerial photographs to help identify every wooden roof in the riskiest fire areas. Officials say the photographs could provide crucial information to firefighters, who could use the photos to determine the most vulnerable spots in fire-threatened neighborhoods.

The county also requested $500,000 from the National Park Service for a pilot program to offer subsidies to homeowners in the Santa Monica Mountains who replace wood roofs with safer materials. Replacing a roof on an average house can cost roughly $5,000 to $15,000, industry officials said.

If successful, the program could be expanded throughout the county, said Frank Vidales, a forester with the County Fire Department's Fire Plan Unit, who helped write the grant requests. He said the county would know within a month if it received the funds.

"[Wood roofing] is one of the biggest reasons we lose structures to fire," said Vidales. "It's kindling on a rooftop."

Typically made of western red cedars--the same soft, light wood used for totem poles--wooden roofs were popular in California and the Pacific Northwest until recent decades. Their popularity declined as development crept into more fire-prone areas and as high-profile disasters, such as the 1991 Oakland Hills blaze, which destroyed 3,000 homes, were blamed in part on wooden roofing.

The wood roof industry, however, bristles at suggestions that its products are unsafe. Treated wood shingles were developed to meet most low-level safety ratings in the 1970s, said Tom Melum, director of governmental affairs for Chemco, a Washington-based wood treatment company. And since the late 1990s, wood roofs have been available with Class-A fire-safety ratings, the federal government's highest, Melum said.

California law requires that all wood roofs sold in the state be treated with fire retardant and pass a natural weathering test. Some cities and municipalities have enacted stricter laws. The city of Los Angeles bans wood roofs on new homes, as well as the replacement of existing ones, despite advances in flame retardants.

"We have too many mountainous areas in the city, and we've had such bad luck with those types of roofs that the powers that be have decided not to allow them," said Bob Steinbach, the chief inspector with the city's Building and Safety Department.

The city of Cerritos instituted a similar ban after a jet crashed into a subdivision in August 1986, sparking a devastating fire that was fueled in part by wood-shake roofs. Last year, however, the city reversed the ban, allowing new roofs with a Class-A rating, Assistant City Manager Dennis Davis said.

The Los Angeles Fire Department considered creating maps identifying wood roofs in some neighborhoods in the late 1990s. But the idea led to public outrage when a firefighter suggested that those homes would be "written off" in a major fire. Fire Chief Bob Franco said the mapping plan was abandoned due to the controversy.

County officials suggest that owners of wood-roofed houses pay extra attention to brush clearance and other fire prevention measures.

Jerry Davis, the owner of the home in the Verdugo Mountains that Hostetter thought could be in trouble during the brush fire, said his home was fine. But the blaze made him realize it was time to replace his roof, which has not had flame retardant applied for more than 20 years. If the county would kick in a few thousand dollars to help him buy a new roof, Davis said, he'd take it.

"But I do love the way these look," he said, nodding toward his cascade of dark brown shingles. "It's stupid ... but I'm into aesthetics."

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