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Lessons From Lahaina

What Can We learn From The Maui Firestorm?

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB

The Lahaina Maui fire storm sent shivers up all our spines. After so many devastating Northern California disastrous fires, all of us shared a prayer for the Maui locals’ survival. Of the 2170 acres of land ravished and thousands of structures destroyed, a few structures survived and one house built almost 100 years ago on the ocean front appears to have endured.

Throughout the North Bay we’ve seen the wildfires destroy whole communities in Santa Rosa and Paradise, but not like the Maui firestorm. Napa has been the devil’s playground for three years with multiple fires throughout here and adjacent counties. Why did some structures and homes survive the fire storms in Napa and Maui? What can we learn from the unexpected survivors?

The Front Street residence was a local a bookkeeper‘s home listed with the Historic Hawaiian Foundation. Built in 1925, the Hawaiian Bungalow architectural style was moved in 1942 to its present location. Moving homes in those days was so much easier.

When Dora and Trip Atwater Millikin bought the house in 2021, they considered it a nightmare in need of significant repairs. The Millikin’s went about an extensive renovation including replacing the exterior with stucco, removing five layers of asphalt roof shingles and installing a metal roof.

While the solid California fire-resistant Redwood construction may have helped, other neighborhood-built structures of the same materials burnt to the ground. Of major importance, the Millikin’s also ripped out a lot of the old landscaping for a five-foot perimeter clearance around the home and installed a bed of river stone. This helped eliminate flying embers, notorious for starting fires, from settling on combustible surfaces.

I’ve been licensed in Hawaii for over ten years and I used to believe exterior stucco was a perfect shield against firestorms until I saw homes in Santa Rosa explode from the inside when embers flew through their ground floor ventilation vents and ignited the sub- floor areas.  In California we have Wildlife Urban Interface building requirements for rural areas that requires exteriors, roofs and decks to be built fire resistant. There is no such thing as “fireproof” but using safe exterior materials can reduce the risk tremendously. To my knowledge, WUI requirements don’t exist on Hawaii.

A quick word about perimeter underfloor vents. They are code required to allow free air ventilation under the floor to minimize moisture penetration from the underground. The code requires one vents for every 150 ft.²of underfloor area. However, that number can be reduced to 10% if the underfloor ground is covered with a thick membrane or other fire-retardant that minimizes structural moisture penetration and resists insect and pest.

This is one very important improvement every home owner with a raised floor can provide to minimize structural decay and minimize fire ember access. There are also Vulcan Vents that have a honeycomb matrix that when heated expand to create a protective fire wall. However, once a vent is closed by fire or embers it must be replaced with a new one. They are required in all California WUI areas includes most of rural Napa.

Another vulnerability are roof vents around the roof perimeter. Embers love to travel up under roof overhangs as well as enter through attic gable end vents. Most residences are constructed with open overhang soffits using “bird blocks”, round screened holes in the framing. These have been known to foster ember attic fires from barbeques, let alone a fire storm miles away. New construction regulations are eliminating these and existing residence should look into alternative roof-top ventilation.

One other fire prevention method, not used widely but proven to be very effective, is to strategically locate rainbirds sprinklers around the roof with remote or manual controls to turn them on in an emergency. An app can be connected to your phone to turn on a system while one is away. I live under a forest of redwoods and am having such a system installed currently with lawn sprinklers. Metal garden hoses are available that will last longer on a hot roof area.

But here is the big take-away: Lahaina was an urban community, not grass huts on a beach. None of us are exempt from a firestorm that could destroy acres of homes and commercial areas. Paradise and Coffey Park learned the hard way. While all new construction has fire suppression systems installed indoors, we need to make our exteriors more fire resistant. Check out WUI requirements. Making our homes fire safe is a full-time job. We all need to take special care.

Chris D Craiker AIA/NCARB has renovated or rebuilt more multifamily buildings in the Bay Area than any other architect.

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