The homeowner hired Firezat Inc. to cover their 1,400-square-foot second home in Meyers, California. Bought $6,000 worth of wrapping from
Reno, Nev. – Martin Dickey said he panicked as a huge wildfire started running down the slopes toward his wooden house near Lake Tahoe.
The contractor had enough time to do some quick research and decided to wrap his mountain house with an aluminum protective covering. Materials that can withstand intense heat for short periods of time resemble tin foil from kitchen drawers, but are modeled after tent-like shelters, which are designed to protect themselves if caught in flames. Forest firefighters use it as a last resort.
Dickey, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area most of the time, purchased $6,000 worth of wrapping from FireZat Inc. in San Diego, enough to cover his 1,400-square-foot (130-square-meter) second home. . The small California community of Meyers.
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“It’s very expensive, and if you turn off the fire before you can, you’ll feel stupid,” he said. “But I’m really glad we did. It was so nerve-wracking when the flames came down the slopes.”
The flexible aluminum sheets that Dickey installed in his $700,000 home are not widely used because they are expensive and difficult to install, although they have saved some properties, including historic cabins managed by the US government.
Firefighters wrap the base of the world’s largest tree this week to protect it from wildfires burning near a famous grove of giant old-growth sequoia in California’s Sequoia National Park. The huge General Sherman Tree, a few other sequences in the Giant Forest, a museum and a few other buildings were also wrapped around the prospect of intense flames.
It comes as another aluminum-wrapped home near Lake Tahoe, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Dickey’s house, Caldor escaped the fire while neighboring homes were destroyed.
Wrapping draws heat away from buildings, which helps prevent flammable materials from burning. It also keeps air embers—a major contributor to the spread of wildfires—from slipping through vents and other openings in a home. With a fiberglass backing and acrylic adhesive, the wraps can withstand heat up to 1,022 degrees Fahrenheit (550 Celsius).
Until about a decade ago, most of the damage caused by forest fires was caused by house fires, as the flames burned the surrounding vegetation. Recent studies suggest that a large role is played by the structure-to-structure fires that spread in a domino effect as the tremendous heat causes the manufactured material to burst into flames.
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The company from which Dickie bought his wraps gets about 95% of its sales from the US Forest Service and the National Park Service. FireZat Inc. Dan Herring, the founding president of the Forest Service, estimates that the Forest Service has wrapped 600 to 700 buildings, bridges, communication towers and other structures in national forests this year alone.
Firefighters on social media compare the wraps to a “big baked potato.” The one who helped set up some said he felt like he was “wrapping Christmas gifts.”
Forest Service officials say they have been using rap for many years throughout the American West to protect sensitive structures. In Lake Tahoe, they have wrapped up the Angora Ridge Lookout, a nationally registered historic fire lookout tower, said agency battalion chief Phil Hetzke.
“At times, Forest Service structures are wrapped well in advance of a fire,” he said in a statement. Crews can often focus on protecting other buildings or other tasks.
Firezat sells a 200 ft (61 m) long fire shield roll by 5 feet (1.5 m) wide for about $700. Installation by a contractor typically costs thousands of dollars.
“People think we should sell a lot of things, but it’s not as much as everyone thinks,” Herring said. Despite the cost, he said a building wouldn’t burn until “a fire hits it.”
A mechanical engineering professor at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University published 10 years of research about protective covers in Frontiers in the Mechanical Engineering Journal in 2019, saying they “demonstrated both remarkable performance and technical limitations.”
Fumiyaki Takahashi said the aluminized surface blocks up to 92% of convective heat and 96% of radiation.
He said wrapping is most effective if the forest fire burns with less than 10 minutes of exposure. It is less effective in areas with high-density housing, where spreading inferno can burn for hours without being stopped by firefighters.
Takahashi said in an email that the wraps “show promise of being effective, but more research is needed to develop a more efficient yet lighter weight”. He said he would not recommend them to everyone because they require proper installation.
“But once the installation methods (like a standard) are established, I will,” he wrote. “There have been many success stories by the US Forest Service for saving historic cabins.”
Hering said most of the individual buyers he’s had over the years want to protect “really expensive cabins, really expensive homes, resorts, etc.” These include homeowners on a $5 million lot in Malibu, Calif., who are asked to sign an agreement that the Forest Service is not responsible for protecting their property in certain cases.
A Wyoming rancher once put Hering on a conference call with a fire commander and insurance adjuster, who was going to slash his rates when he wrapped the cabin for about $1.5 million.
“Often it’s people who can’t get fire insurance or have their insurance taken away. They want to wrap it up to protect their investment that way,” he said.
Dickey suggests getting extra help applying the wrapping.
“He recommended that three people do it in 3.5 hours. I brought four contractors with me and worked all day night… busted our butt for 12.5 hours,” he said.
As far as sales losses as a result of the recent wildfires, Herring stresses that this is “an extremely seasonal business.”
“The first five years, there were new competitors coming in every year. And at the end of each year, I got a call: “Would you be interested in buying our catalog?” he said.
Once it starts raining and snowing, he says he often sells nothing for nine months. However, this may change, as climate change contributes to more intense weather and more destructive, nearly year-round wildfire seasons.