Fenestration: Wildfire Mitigation

Wildland-Urban Interface Codes Help Protect People, Property, & Communities

by Kathy Krafka Harkema, United States technical operations director, Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance (FGIA)

(Editor’s Note:  Kathy Krafka Harkema is a longtime window safety and energy-efficiency educator and she leads the Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance’s (FGIA’s) United States technical operations team.  The team is responsible for development of FGIA’s regulatory and legislative advocacy, building codes positions, fenestration certification programs, standards and publication creation, and more on behalf of FGIA members.)

Wildfires are not limited to rural areas.  These disasters can, and increasingly do, occur virtually anywhere, including urban areas, putting an even greater number of people and structures at risk.  Unfortunately, wildfires’ intensity and destruction only continue to increase.  Wildfires in 2020 and 2021 together burned more area than the previous seven years combined.  These fires killed 33 people in 2020 with overall economic losses of more than $19 billion and firefighting costs approaching $2.1 billion.

         This increase in wildfires also has increased interest in the International Code Council’s (ICC) International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC) as well as state and local Wildland-Urban Interface Codes.  The wildland-urban interface describes the transition zone between unoccupied land and human development.  This is the line, area, or zone where structures and other human development, like homes and buildings, meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland areas or vegetative fuels.  These fuels include grass, shrubs, trees, twigs, leaves, pinecones, cactus, brush, moss, or anything that can ignite and cause wildfires to spread.

         Last year alone, over seven million acres burned in wildfires, the tenth highest number ever recorded in a wildfire season.  Building codes, like the IWUIC, can play a major role in helping to save people and protect property.  As of early 2022, some 94 counties and 850 jurisdictions in 24 states across the United States have adopted the IWUIC.  The IWUIC 2021 code is the latest IWUIC version.

         The IWUIC establishes regulations to help safeguard life and property from wildland fire intrusion and to help prevent structure fires from spreading to wildland fuels.  Compatible with all ICC International Codes, the IWUIC has been based on data collected from tests and fire incidents, technical reports, and mitigation strategies from around the world.

         The IWUIC also regulates defensible space, which is the buffer created between homes or buildings and natural material surrounding the structure.  The buffer helps slow or stop wildfires’ spread by reducing the risk of fire from embers, from direct flame contact, or from radiant heat.  In addition, the IWUIC provides standards for emergency access, water supply, and fire protection.

         When it comes to hardening a structure against wildfires, a fenestration solution recommended by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is multi-paned windows having at least one pane of tempered glass.  These products can be installed for either new structures or via retrofit.

         The Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance (FGIA) has long recognized the important role that building codes, including the IWUIC, play in protecting lives, homes, structures, and communities.  The FGIA’s Wildland Interface Task Group’s focus is to monitor and influence codes, standards, certification procedures, and/or potential requirements, particularly those relating to testing windows and doors’ resistance to wildfires.  FGIA members are analyzing existing wildfire and fire code language to prepare potential proposals for submission in future building code cycles that provide greater clarity, especially on areas related to fenestration and glazing aspects of residential and commercial structures.

         Architects can continue to do their part by specifying products that harden structures against wildfires and by advocating for mitigation efforts through the code development process.

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