Solutions for Self-Reliance

Why do Some Homes Burn in Wildfires and Others Don’t? Also: Back up Power for Apartments


Today’s letter features some great questions/input from our amazing community.  As we progress, I’ll try to find ways to enable more interaction between community members to speed up the learning process.

Michael Yon (the intrepid reporter/photographer) sent me a note:  Your stuff is great.  Have you ever done a piece that explains why during these big fires, such as now in Colorado, some homes burn down another homes remain standing?

John:  Thanks Michael.  Really appreciate it.

No, I haven’t written much about wildfires and resilience in the past, but it’s a great topic.

So, why do some homes burn and other don’t? Here are three interesting items to kick off a discussion on the topic. Fortunately, they are all items that are under our control.

NOTE: For those of you in our community that are experts on the topic, feel free to modify, extend or shred my analysis.

One statistical study (San Diego) on the topic found that geography is the most important factor.  Simply, your home will be more likely to burn down if you build a home in a:

  • wind corridor.
  • on a steep slope.
  • in a remote location surrounded by wilderness.

This makes sense.  Resilience starts with community selection.  Going it alone puts you at greater risk than living near other people.  Living in a place that is frequently dangerous isn’t smart (beachfront housing in a hurricane corridor comes to mind).

Next, in most cases fires are started by flying embers (Australia study) carried by winds up to a couple of miles ahead of the fire front, and not radiant heat or the fire front itself.

So, if your home is vulnerable to fires started by embers, you home will be much more likely to burn.  For those of you wondering about what makes you vulnerable to embers, here a great graphic from the article above (click to see detail):

Finally, homes surrounded by improperly maintained vegetation are more likely to burn.

Three ways to correctly maintain vegetation:

  • Remove vegetation that touches or is very close to the home.
  • Well maintained landscaping (or better yet foodscaping) using non-native species in the area around your home.   There’s even reason to believe that well maintained trees can form a wind trap that might protect your home from embers.
  • San Diego’s landscaping guide recommends keeping native species intact in an extended zone around your home.  However, you must free it of dead material (fuel).  Trim trees of dead branches and remove dead grass.  Removing native vegetation can create many more problems than it solves, and might actually create a wind funnel that leads embers directly to your home.


My Backup Power Generator

I’ve gotten quite a few questions about the backup power generator I talked about in a previous RC (resilient community) letter.

Chris asks:  Could you send me a link to the natural gas generator you just purchased?  I would be interested in doing some research. I’m going solar in a piece of land we are using ( about 10,000 acres with 1km of beachfront ) to store our boats, but also want a back up generator.   Hope all is well.   Perhaps you can come and visit us sometime.

John:  I’d love to visit!   Here’s the model that I bought.  The Guardian Series 20 Kw from Generac.  There’s a six month delay getting these generators right now.  It has a relatively fast switch over.  If you want high-end speed on the switch over, look into a flywheel.

Rita asks:  Can you suggest which type of business does this type of work? Does one need a permit?

John:  I didn’t need a permit, but I did need to get it inspected by the town’s electricity code inspector.   I had a general contractor install the concrete pad and place the generator on it.  I used an electrician and a plumber (strangely, a father/son team) for the complex work.  The plumber installed the connection between the generator and the natural gas line.  The electrician built the panel that is backed up by the generator and the connections between them.


Backup Power for Apartment Dwellers

Marcus, our Resilient Nomad made an excellent contribution yesterday:

Apartment living has some challenges. It’s great if you can get neighbors to cooperate on purchasing and maintaining a main generator, but in practice, difficult. Things like cost, maintenance, ownership, and permissions etc. create conflict points.

Some power outage solutions I’ve used:

I use the Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) they build for computers to power/recharge laptops, cellphones, DVD players.  Once the power cuts off, these ‘always on power sources’ switch to a deep charge system designed to keep desktop computers running for some time; they hold good charges. Of course, of limited utility in an extended blackout, but can charge your small electronics for some time. In the same vein, a portable jump-start unit with a built-in inverter; I had one I bought at Wal-Mart for $50 (on sale) with an inverter for standard household current as well as cigarette lighter plugs for 12v stuff; I used mine OFTEN in black outs for up to 12 hours to power a laptop to watch DVDs on and to recharge my cell phone.

Again, this only works for the short-term.

For longer blackouts in hot or cold weather, having equipment (a good sleeping bag) and the means to create a cool room or hot room within your house (cool room might not always be possible in modern apartments) can help. To cool off, take cotton sheets and soak in water and place over windows/doors to keep cool, or else move outside into a shade shelter where you have a ready breeze.

For refrigeration, short-term is to have a good ice chest and take all your frozen stuff and transfer it while still cold into the sealed ice chest and use it to keep your stuff cold; longer term consider a 12v portable cooler that runs off a car lighter socket that you can cool down in your car.

Also consider utilizing 12v systems (LED lighting is a must and top loading fridges) for longer term outages or in the case of rolling brown out/blackouts.

A single generator for an apartment is generally not doable because of wiring issues, ventilation, noise and gasoline supply (most apartment buildings regulate all of the above pretty heavily).

In sum, any power outage issue in a modern apartment complex is going to create significant issues for the inhabitants unless there is a co-op solution, especially if the outage goes for more than a few days. Most people will abandon if w/o power for more than 2 days, stay with friends or hotels, or you run the risk in certain conditions of people taking risks to heat or cool their places (bringing grills inside to heat and cook without adequate ventilation, or trying to jury rig a/c or fans with extension cords and creating a fire hazard).

Provides opportunity for improvisation, but a solo apartment dweller has limited ability to generate solutions without running afoul of neighbors or landlords, in my experience.

Thanks Marcus.





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