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Home’s Strategic Design Helped Family Escape Tea Fire Unscathed

In building their home, owners Marlene and David Berry were committed to using green, fire-resistant features.

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Although the Tea Fire surrounded Marlene and David Berry’s home, burning up to their front door, the structure was left intact thanks to the Berrys’ efforts to design it to be fire-resistant. (Karen Feeney / Allen Associates photo)

In the midst of the devastation created by the Tea Fire, there are a few stories of families whose homes escaped the fire unscathed. While some of these stories seem like simple twists of fate or, in some cases, miracles, there are a few people who strategically designed their homes to survive a fire. Marlene and David Berry are among them.

Although the Tea Fire surrounded their home, literally burning up to their front door, their house survived with hardly a trace of soot. Sure, they lost most of the plants in their fire-resistant landscaping, and there are marks from burning embers that landed on the wooden threshold of a door leading into their garage (the only nonmetal threshold in their house). But their home is intact, along with everything in it. Why were the Berrys so lucky? The answer: It wasn’t just luck.

The Berrys completed construction of their home on West Mountain Drive in April 2006. The home, designed by local architect Richard Starnes and built by general contractor Allen Associates, won the Santa Barbara Contractors Association’s Best Green Residence Award in 2006.

The home also received accolades — long before the Tea Fire — from the Santa Barbara Fire Department for its fire-resistant design. It turns out that many of the green features the Berrys selected for their home contributed to its fire resistance.

“When we moved to Santa Barbara and built our new home, we were very conscious that Southern California was fire prone,” David Berry said. “It turned out that many of the fire-resistant features recommended by our architect and the fire department — a standing seam metal roof, stucco walls, metal clad eaves — fit into our design aesthetic as well as our green building goals.

“In designing our home, we listened to advice from our architect, our contractor, and the Santa Barbara Fire Department. The decisions we made felt like common sense. We often get temperatures close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer here on Mountain Drive. Why wouldn’t we want our home to be built with well-insulated walls and high-performance windows? We did not know that these features were the key to the survival of our house last week.”

Temperatures outside the Berrys’ home most likely exceeded 1,000 degrees during the fire, potentially causing the interior of the home to self combust.

“After the fire, we checked our programmable thermostat when we returned to the house and found that during the fire, the temperature inside the house never rose above 84 degrees Fahrenheit,” David Berry said.

The Berrys’ home also was equipped with a fire sprinkling system that would have activated when interior temperatures reached 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but it never did.

In the process of designing their home, the Berrys also met with Ann Marx, a wildlife interface specialist for the city of Santa Barbara, to learn what they could about making their home fire safe.

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The Berrys’ landscaping was torched in the blaze. In hindsight, they say, they wouldn’t have planted olive trees, which are prone to igniting during a fire, or used wood bark chips as ground cover. (Karen Feeney / Allen Associates photo)
Marx suggested clearing brush around the home and planting a xeriscape landscape to create a natural transition area between their home and the surrounding chaparral vegetation. The plants Marx recommended for the landscape included drought-tolerant natives as well as aloes and cactus closer to the house. She also recommended that the Berrys design with closed eaves to prevent burning embers from entering their home and without an attic to avoid the potential for a fire to spread quickly.

Other green building choices that Allen Associates and Starnes recommended, and that contributed to the survival of the Berrys’ home, include:

» Selecting a radiant space heating system, instead of a traditional forced air system, to eliminate the need for ducting. Fires can spread throughout a home by traveling through HVAC duct systems.

» Installing metal clad, energy-efficient windows instead of ones with wood cladding and single panes.

» Building the home with 12-inch thick exterior walls filled with cellulose insulation with an R value of 40. The California building code requires only R-13 insulation in exterior walls.

» Installing cellulose insulation in the roof with an R-value of 60; California building code requires only R-19.

» Properly sealing doors and windows throughout the house that prevented burning embers from entering the home.

The Berrys are starting a list of things they wished they hadn’t done. Two items they know will be on that list are:

» Installing olive trees. The high oil content of these trees makes them prone to igniting during a fire.

» Using wood bark chips as ground cover in their landscape. The bark chips around their home burned and contributed to the amount of burning embers around their home.

On Dec. 13, a group of local architects, builders and energy experts will offer an educational workshop (time and location to be announced) for victims of the Tea Fire. The goal of the workshop is to offer suggestions on how people can rebuild their homes greener, more fire resistant and more energy efficient. The Berrys’ story will be shared as an example.

Karen Feeney is Allen Associates’ green resources manager.

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