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Fires Fan Wood-Roof Debate : Roofing: Fire-resistant roofs only one of the reasons some homes were spared in Glendale and Santa Barbara fires.

<i> Boyer is a Riverside free-lance writer. </i>

As the disastrous Glendale fire of late June surged around their home, Shirley Martin and her children watched from a nearby street.

Houses on either side collapsed in flames, and Martin saw hers disappear under a cloud of black smoke. But when the smoke cleared, she was amazed to see her home still standing.

Some people called it a miracle. But Martin and her husband, Ray, attribute it to several factors, including a fire-resistant Decra-Tile roof made of coated steel panels.

But another home nearby wasn’t so lucky. That house, also topped with Decra-Tile, was little more than a pile of ashes.

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The contrast between the fate of the two homes demonstrates that no matter how fire-resistant a roof is, it won’t keep a house from burning in certain conditions.

Why did the Martin home survive while another didn’t, if they had the same fire-resistant roof?

Ray Martin points out that his home had no trees or brush within 10 feet, only grass and flowers. A neighbor with a different type of metal roof had cypress trees growing under wood eaves that went up “like Christmas trees,” he said.

Shirley Martin closed doors and windows before leaving, unlike another neighbor who left open a door of her tile-roofed home.

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And the Martins were lucky that a man stopped to hose down the side of their house.

The other Decra-Tile house was too close to shrubs and a brushy canyon wall, according to representatives of its manufacturer.

Fire officials say that, as important as a fire-resistant roof is, it’s only part of a protection system that includes the following:

--Keep brush, trees and shrubs away from homes.

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--Eaves should be short or boxed in to prevent them from igniting.

--Avoid wood decks or use thick, treated lumber.

--Sliding glass doors are another no-no, and windows need double-paned glass. Otherwise, even homes with roofs that won’t burn can let embers into other parts of the house. Heat often breaks windows, allowing contents to catch fire.

As much as he encourages people to install fire-resistant roofs, they can give homeowners a false sense of safety, said Glendale Fire Marshal Chris Gray. In Glendale, most of the 46 homes destroyed had wood-shake roofs, but about 10 had fire-retardant ones, he said.

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Heat and winds in June’s Santa Barbara County fire were so intense that houses with all kinds of roofs burned, said Michael Bennett, Santa Barbara County fire marshal.

The recent fires are motivating other homeowners to install new, safer roofs.

After the Santa Barbara County conflagration that destroyed more than 400 homes, people are replacing wood-shake roofs that still have 10 to 15 years of wear left, said Paul Craig, a local roofing company owner.

The fire toll is also persuading more and more civil officials to require fire-resistant roofs. Some ordinances specifically prohibit any type of wood roof, even those pressure-treated with chemicals to resist fire.

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Not surprisingly, the wood-roof industry is fighting back. Industry representatives say treated wood roofs are not a fire hazard, unlike untreated wood shakes.

As an example they cite Jane and Howard Giles’ Santa Barbara County home, whose treated wood roof was installed last year by the previous owner. The house survived while surrounding homes with untreated wood roofs didn’t. The only damage was a broken window pane and bent window frames, although the yard was burned up to the front door, Jane Giles said.

The house has attracted gawkers who drive by pointing video cameras out their sunroofs. “They say, ‘You were so lucky or the wind must have changed,’ ” she said. “People won’t admit the wood roof saved the house.”

The Giles’ house notwithstanding, Santa Barbara County supervisors agreed last month to immediately require Class A roof materials in unincorporated areas. Only roofs with a high resistance to outside fires make the Class A list. (Ratings may also depend on installation methods.)

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Although industry representatives argue that treated wood roofs can qualify if applied over gypsum board, wood shakes aren’t on the approved list, Fire Marshal Bennett said.

The ordinance also limits eave length and requires fire-resistant walls and double-paned glass in fire hazard areas.

The city of Santa Barbara banned wood roofs entirely in a tough new ordinance that also requires non-combustible roofs in high-risk areas, said Janaki Wilkinson, assistant fire marshal. That excludes asphalt roofs.

While the ordinance doesn’t specifically mention asphalt, as it does wood, it requires non-combustible roofs according to the Uniform Building Code, which rules out asphalt and fiberglass shingles, and built-up tar and gravel used on flat roofs, said William Marshall, western regional manager for the Asphalt Roof Manufacturers Assn.

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The trade group is reviewing the ban, the first for its products, Marshall said.

The city plans to issue a list of acceptable materials by the time the ordinance takes effect later this month, Wilkinson said. Also, officials are trying to figure a way to require enough gravel on built-up roofs to increase their fire resistance without adding too much weight.

Meanwhile, the Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau will probably sue both the city of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara County for discriminating against its fire-resistant products, said Phil Favro, former California state fire marshal and now a bureau consultant. The Bellevue, Wash.-based trade group sued Los Angeles last year. That case is still pending.

Treated shakes and shingles meet roofing industry standards for fire resistance, so it’s unfair to ban the products, said Mark Rutledge, marketing manager for the bureau. Untreated roofs do not qualify for a rating. The bureau doesn’t support spray-on treatments that claim to make untreated wood fire-resistant.

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Treated wood also has passed the flying-brand test to ensure that pieces don’t break off and start fires on nearby roofs, according to Underwriters Laboratories testing service.

Los Angeles city fire officials aren’t convinced.

“We don’t feel they’re proven to be safe,” said Fire Marshal Dave Parsons. “We don’t feel the tests replicate Southern California weather conditions,” including Santa Ana winds, he said. “Our major concern is the flying-brand issue.”

Parsons said that because treated roofs haven’t been tested for their full life (up to 30 years), banning them is the safest thing to do.

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Glendale also banned new wood roofs last year. Now the city is considering requiring homeowners to remove existing wood shakes and shingles. Owners would get a certain amount of time to replace their roofs, Fire Marshal Gray said. If passed, the requirement would be the first of its kind, he added.

But Los Angeles County rejected a proposed ban last month on new wood roofs, although it tightened roof fire-resistance requirements last year.

“I can’t give you one case in the 2,000 square miles we’ve served where (a wood roof) has failed,” said county Fire Marshal Jim Daleo.

Even where new wood roofs are banned, shakes and shingles are usually allowed for minor roof repairs. Cities vary on how much repair or remodeling is permitted before a new roof must be installed.

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While some materials can be installed over wood shake, several cities require removal of old shake roofs as a precaution. That adds extra expense and time to the job, said Frank Schwartz, director of the Steel Roof Manufacturers Assn. The removal requirement could cost homeowners as much as $2,000 more, he said.

Roofs made of the coated steel tiles are installed to snugly overlap a plywood grid so no embers can get through, he said, and are safe even when used over shake.

Besides the extra costs imposed by such ordinances, there’s also the issue of how far government can go in telling people what to put on their house, bureau marketing manager Rutledge said.

Gray’s response to that argument is that cities have to take reasonable steps to prevent people from jeopardizing others’ lives and property.

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Gray and other officials don’t recommend any one type of roof, but said homeowners should look at fire-resistance ratings and local requirements. Class A resists severe fire exposure outside the structure, B resists moderate exposure and C, slight exposure.

Asphalt and fiberglass composition shingles are lightweight, relatively inexpensive roofing materials. They can be rated Class A, B or C, and last from 15 to 30 years, depending on the type used. Some higher-priced grades resemble wood and have more texture and color variety.

Tile is extremely fire resistant and long-lasting, roofing experts say. It can be expensive depending on the type of tile, although its durability balances out the cost in the long run, said Richard Boon, deputy director of the Roofing Industry Educational Institute in Englewood, Colo.

Concrete tile is less expensive than traditional clay tile, but some people prefer clay’s texture and color. The main drawback to tile is its weight. Houses not designed for a tile roof need reinforcement to support the extra load, which adds at least several hundred dollars to the cost of reroofing.

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A lighter-weight concrete tile has been developed to help overcome the problem, said Walter Pruder, executive vice president of the National Tile Roof Manufacturers Assn., a Los Angeles-based trade group. Although tile is used on most new California houses, manufacturers want a bigger share of the reroofing market, Pruder said.

For people who don’t want to worry about reinforcing their homes, manufacturers of tile and wood substitutes cite the relatively light weight of their products as a selling point. Although fairly expensive, the materials offer high fire resistance and a long warranty.

More homeowners are also choosing such materials when they aren’t allowed to put on a wood roof but want that same look.

The wood-look products are made of various mixtures, including perlite, cement and wood fiber. Brand names include Woodruf, Hardishake, Permatek and Cal-Shake.

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Decra-Tile; coated steel panels made by Gerard, and Maxi-Tile, a blend of silica, fiber and Portland cement, resemble clay tile but are considerably lighter.

However, some contractors and industry experts are cautious about these relatively new products with warranties ranging from 20 to 50 years.

Most Americans don’t stay in a house long enough to see if the roof lives up to its guarantee, said Thomas Lee Smith of the National Roofing Contractors Assn. in Rosemont, Ill. Some warranties are transferable to the next owner but others aren’t.

Warranty or not, a new roof adds value to a house and can make it more marketable for resale. Also, some insurance companies give discounts for fire-resistant roofs, although that varies by company and home location.

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Which kind to chose?

With so many types on the market, a decision can be difficult. The right choice depends on the style of your house and local weather. If it’s very windy, very damp or extremely hot and dry where you live, make sure the roof is guaranteed to withstand those conditions.

When it comes to cost, divide the price by the years it’s expected to last to get a better comparison of different materials.

Experts also suggest looking at an entire house roofed in the material, not just a sample or pictures. Ask a homeowner who’s had a particular roof for several years how the material holds up to weather and whether it has discolored or cracked.

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And remember, “roofing is only one aspect of fire safety,” Glendale Fire Marshal Chris Gray said.


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