The fire destroyed the hillsides, charred the trees, bushes and houses along the way, and eventually destroyed about 28,000 hectares of land in northern California. However, Sean Jennings’ house was not burned down, and it still stands on the hillside. After the fire, the pale red stucco walls and green roof looked particularly bright against the burnt cars and white ashes.
Jennings said that the reason why his family survived the 2015 Valley Fire was because the house was not made of wood. Five years before the “valley fire” broke out, Jennings used a plate called RSG 3-D when building the house. This kind of board is fixed by spreading the foam insulation material in the steel bar grid, and then pouring and forming with concrete. This material is stronger than wood, more resistant to termites, and less prone to fire. Jennings said: “Wooden houses are too fragile and are prone to cracks.” Right now, he is building a second house with RSG panels in Sonoma County. This house was built for his mother, not far from where the compound lightning fire broke out in 2020. At that time, that large-scale wildfire burned nearly 147,000 hectares of land in the area within six weeks.
Last year’s drought fueled one unprecedented fire after another, and this year’s drought has been even worse. In the case of frequent fires, abandoning the use of wood is a good strategy, but the United States still stubbornly has a soft spot for wood. The United States is one of the few countries that uses wood as the main material to build houses. According to data from the American Association of Home Builders, 90% of new residential buildings in the United States in 2019 were made of wood. Even if scientists emphasize that trees play an important role in carbon capture and climate change mitigation, the United States still uses more wood products than other countries, not only building materials, but also furniture, flooring, and paper.
The Gateway Construction Company, located in Northern California, has been building homes since 1997. President Matt Watson said: “Timber is really everywhere, and it’s time to make some changes.” Last year, Watson decided to start using wood. Other building materials. Currently, he is building new homes for customers who lost their homes in the wildfire. 19 of the 21 rebuilt houses used building materials other than wood. Watson’s workers replaced hammers and nails with pneumatic tools used to fix steel plates. But Watson said it may take a while for people to adapt, after all, old habits are hard to change. “It’s like getting people out of fossil fuels.”
Whether it was the “valley fire” that burned down the hillside where Jennings’ home was located, or the mountain fire that scorched about 3.6 million hectares of land in the western United States last year, people’s reliance on wood played a big role in the fire. Climate change has exacerbated the degree of drought; protecting trees is one of the most cost-effective ways to mitigate climate change, because trees can absorb carbon dioxide and reduce man-made emissions.
| Excessive felling of trees |
However, a study published in the journal Nature in 2015 showed that about 15 billion trees are felled every year, and the number of trees in the world has been reduced by 46% since the birth of human civilization. Today, although logging operations are more common in developing countries such as Brazil-the purpose is to free up land for farming-but the United States is the country with the most logging in the world. The United States cuts down millions of trees every year, and the logging cycle is shorter than ever before.
”There was a time when they fell trees in a cycle of 60 or 80 years.” said builder Mike Roddy. When he was a river guide before, he flew through the bare forests by plane. Since then, he has started to publicize the dangers of logging. Roddy said: “Later, they thought it would be better to take 40 years as a cycle.” As he said, he opened a book, and it showed an expanse of bare forest.
In the United States, private landowners are responsible for most of the trees that are felled. According to data from the American Federation of Woodland Owners, about 3.15 million hectares of forest in the United States were deforested in 2019, an area the size of Maryland. The landowner will replant trees after felling to keep the forest densely wooded. However, the 120-year logging cycle a few decades ago has now been greatly shortened. This can have a huge impact on the climate, because mature and old forests can store carbon better than new forests.
On the “Gold Coast” in the northwest, the carbon storage per unit area in this area is higher than that of tropical forests. However, there, the deforestation of primeval forests continues. The Tongars National Forest in Alaska is the world’s largest preserved temperate rain forest. One of the last few bills passed by Trump before he left office was to remove the protection of this forest.
Jennings’s home built with non-combustible materials survived the 2015 Valley Fire.
The United States is the country with the most logging in the world.
Although steelmaking will also increase emissions, 90% of steel can now be recycled and reused, and this cycle is unlimited. However, this is not possible with wood. In addition, most steel plants now use electric arc furnaces that consume less energy.
The owner of the woodland argues that abandoning the use of wood on a large scale is harmful to the environment. Without the forestry market, the enthusiasm of landowners to plant trees will be weakened, and they may use the land for farming or building houses. According to data from the American Federation of Woodland Owners, approximately 1 billion trees are planted in the United States each year.
| Inappropriate post-disaster provisions |
The United States is one of the countries with the highest housing insurance rates in the world and one of the countries with the highest incidence of residential fires. However, the housing insurance company does not discount because the house is made of steel or concrete, even in fire-prone areas. In fact, most insurance companies require homeowners to rebuild their houses immediately after the fire in order to qualify for compensation. As a result, the construction of wooden houses has become an attractive choice because the builders have rich experience, ready-made materials, and workers at any time. Many timber companies even give discounts to customers whose houses are destroyed by fires in order to reduce inventory.
This kind of cycle worries Roddy’s business partner Dominique Delasala very much. De La Sala is a forest ecology expert and the chief scientist of the Wild Heritage Organization. In September 2020, his hometown of Tarent, Oregon was devastated by fire. After the disaster, he witnessed the whole process of rebuilding his hometown. “This is crazy, isn’t it?” De La Salla said, looking at the wooden houses rising from the ground, “doing the same thing, but expecting different results.”
De La Salla said that the old trees rescued from the burnt forest were piled up in piles at the logging yards in the town. This year, the temperature in parts of Oregon was surprisingly high, and more than 97% of the state was exceptionally dry.
A few years ago, Sara Woodfield, an architect from Sonoma County, California, tried to help a group of homeowners who lost their homes in the 2017 “Tubbs Fire” rebuild their houses with RSG panels. However, soon, one by one, the homeowners gave up building materials that were not easy to catch fire, because the contractor said they would only build houses with wood.
Woodfield said that after seeing the unprecedented fires last year, her interest in non-combustible materials has grown stronger, but most architects still use wood to build houses.
House ruins after the California fire
At the same time, because people’s demand for wood is very large, the number of felled trees can only increase, not decrease. And because of rising timber prices, at least 100 old trees were stolen from Vancouver Island, Canada this year. In addition, some people took advantage of the lax supervision after the fire and took the opportunity to remove old trees from the disaster-stricken forest in the name of rescuing timber.
This year, many timber companies are trying to persuade the western states of the United States to increase logging to prevent forest fires. But science proves that the opposite is true. Sparse forests will intensify the fire.
”People want to cut down forests to put out fires, but this method simply doesn’t work.” Delasala said. His research found that logging is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in Oregon.
If you want to motivate others to abandon the use of wood to build houses, perhaps you have to rely on the economic factors that persuaded Jennings in the first place. When Jennings planned to build a new house, the home insurance company refused to cover his home because he was in a fire-prone area. Therefore, Jennings decided to use non-flammable materials to protect his property.
According to data from the American Association of Home Builders, due to changes in hurricane-resistant building standards in the southern United States, the number of houses built with concrete frame structures increased by 46% between 2018 and 2019. In 2009, the market share of concrete frame structure houses was only 5%, but now it has doubled. At present, many wineries whose fire insurance has been cancelled by insurance companies have begun to approach Watson to find alternatives to wood.
After the fire, many people still choose to use wood to rebuild their houses.
However, there is still a long way to go before non-flammable materials are used on a large scale. Last year, the “Alameda Fire” destroyed about 3,000 buildings. Kevin Stout, who lives near the city of Tarent, witnessed the power of the fire. So he wanted to build a new house with steel or aluminum frames. However, the contractor told Stott that if he wanted to use materials other than wood, he had to hire professional construction workers, but due to the greater demand for reconstruction after the disaster, it was difficult to find a suitable contractor. Moreover, Stott is also worried that using unconventional building materials may not be able to apply for housing loans.
Later, Stott’s friend sent a photo of his father’s house in Santa Rosa, California. The house was constructed of concrete, but it was destroyed by a fire in 2020. Stott therefore wondered: If the neighbors’ houses around are all wooden structures, then what is the point of building a steel structure house by yourself? “Perhaps it only makes sense for everyone to build houses with non-flammable materials.” Stott said. Right now, he still plans to rebuild his house with wood. “I’m sure my house will be burned down in the fire.” He said, “I will build another one at that time.”