Exterior Fire Sprinklers Saved 188 Properties – Wet homes don’t burn

As renowned fire scientist Jack Cohen has said repeatedly, the wildland fire problem is a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Cohen has been trying to help fire agencies understand this since 1999. Unfortunately, they have shown little interest. We are hoping with the recent wildfire tragedy in Paradise, California, attitudes will change.

But private citizens don’t have to wait.

There are a number of proven strategies and retrofits that can be implemented easily to homes and communities now. One is the installation of exterior fire sprinklers.

The story of the resistance to exterior fire sprinklers illuminates a crippling dichotomy between the structural fire protection and wildland fire communities. But first, the good news. Exterior fire sprinklers systems work, are affordable, and can be easily installed.

Exterior fire sprinklers in action in Australia. From Platypus Fire Pty Ltd.

The Sprinklers Can Save Homes

The effectiveness of exterior fire sprinklers was proven during the 2007 wind-driven Ham Lake Fire in Cook County, Minnesota. In 2001, exterior sprinklers had been installed on 188 properties, including homes and a number of resorts. All 188 properties survived. More than 100 neighboring properties were destroyed.

The 2007 Ham Lake Fire, looking west from Gunflint Lake Rd. on May 9, 2007. From Dan Baumann.


It’s Affordable

The cost of the Cook County program was covered by a FEMA hazard mitigation grant. The program was finished on time and on budget by Wildfire Protection Systems (WPS), costing $764,255. Minnesota U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar credited the program with saving over $42 million in property value. The grant paid 75% of the cost of the sprinklers. Individual property owners covered the balance. With a ready water source, a sprinkler system installation from WPS for an average home can cost between $10,000 to $15,000.

The sprinklers were so successful that a $3 million FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant was awarded in 2008 to install additional wildfire sprinkler systems throughout Cook County. In 2013, another grant was awarded to install the systems in two additional counties, including properties with low-water resources. FEMA pre-disaster grants have also been used in Big Bear and Idyllwild, California to retrofit homes with non-flammable roofing and ember-resistant attic vents.

Canadians have successfully utilized exterior sprinklers too, with the implementation of portable sprinkler kits placed in the path of wildfires. The kits can tap into nearby water sources, pools, or local water tanks. These kits have protected over $2 billion in property value over the past 20 years in Canada, according to Morris Douglas, a retired advisor to various Ministries of Natural Resources.

Exterior sprinklers work by creating an environment that extinguishes embers (spotting firebrands) that are the primary cause of building ignition. The sprinklers do this by 1) hydrating potential fuels, thus making them less susceptible to ignition, 2) increasing humidity, and 3) creating a cooler microclimate around the home.

The impact of the high-severity Ham Lake Fire.
Exterior sprinklers saved this property, along with surrounding vegetation, during the Ham Lake Fire. The sprinklers not only hydrate the structures, but also nearby vegetation.


Scoffs!

When we have suggested exterior fire sprinklers as an innovative way to protect homes from wildfires in California, we’ve typically encountered scoffs. The common reasons given for rejecting the idea:

– Too expensive (guesses as high as $60,000 have been mentioned).
– Wind will blow the water away from the house.
– Water pressure disappears during catastrophic fire events, disabling sprinklers.
– The power goes off during catastrophic events, disabling water pumps.
– People won’t have time to turn the sprinklers on.

All of these doubts are either incorrect or can be easily addressed.

Affordable. As mentioned above, grants can be obtained that can reduce the cost of a professionally installed system for an individual homeowner with a ready source of water to around $3,000. Without a grant, homeowners can install the systems themselves for considerably less than the professional price.

Wind. Yes, strong winds will deflect the water spray. However, despite 20-25 mph wind gusts during the Ham Lake Fire, the installed sprinkler systems worked well. Inspections during the fire found that although the rooftop sprinklers were the least effective when impacted by wind, other placements performed as expected. Some innovative solutions, such as WEEDS (see below) actually use wind to distribute the water.

Independent Systems. During a catastrophic fire event, critical infrastructure often collapses. Electrical power goes out and water pressure drops. This is why an exterior fire sprinkler system needs to be independent, or off the grid. A propane, gas, or diesel water pump (about $1,000) must be connected to a dependable water source (e.g. pool, 10,000 gallon water tank, or lake as is the case in Cook County). A 10,000 gal water tank costs about $6,000, so that adds to the system’s total price, but considering the cost of losing a home it’s a smart investment. A neighborhood could invest in a larger water tank that could serve a number of homes.

Time. When people are awakened in the middle of the night and see smoke everywhere, panic can set in. It’s difficult enough to evacuate, much less run outside and turn on the sprinklers. Unless the system is automated or can be activated by a switch on the way out (this adds to the cost), time is definitely an issue. However, it is not an excuse to dismiss the possibility of using exterior sprinklers.

Extra time can be found if communities can get their emergency alert systems up to speed, and trained CERT volunteers serve as support personnel (they do not evacuate). These fire volunteers can activate the systems, extinguish ember-caused spot fires, and help those who are stranded. During wind-driven, catastrophic wildfires there will never be enough professional emergency personnel available to do the job. Communities should consider picking up the slack.

Protecting their own Neighborhood

The effectiveness of expanding the ranks of emergency fire personnel with volunteers was demonstrated by Jeff and Cathy Moore in Chico during the Camp Fire. They stayed behind and were able to save their home and others around them. They doused surrounding vegetation and extinguished spot fires throughout their neighborhood. Their home also had exterior sprinklers. It definitely helped that they also had proper defensible space, but embers move right on through. In fact, open space just makes it easier for embers to reach the house.

Being a fire volunteer and staying behind when the evacuation call goes out is not a casual decision. Being confronted with the power, the noise, the smoke, and the swirling embers of a wildland fire can instill panic in the most seasoned wildland firefighter. This is why only those who are specially trained should stay behind to defend a community.

Cathy and Jeff Moore stand in front of their home after the Camp Fire in Chico, Calif. They were able to save their neighborhood from the Camp Fire. Note exterior sprinklers on the roof.From Mason Trinca, The Washington Post.


Stories Abound

Many other residents have taken it upon themselves to retrofit their own homes with exterior sprinkler systems. Under-eave misters on the Conniry/Beasley home played a critical role in allowing the structure to survive the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County. The home was located in a canyon where many homes and lives were lost to the flames. You can read their story here.

There are a number of other options becoming available as well. M-Bar Technologies offers an objective analysis of one approach that uses the wind to help distribute the water spray, the Wind-Enabled Ember Dousing System (WEEDS). The system is credited with saving another home threatened by the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Wildfire Protection Systems has begun installing exterior sprinkler systems in Payson, Arizona and Mill Valley, California.

During and After. Most homes ignite by embers landing on flammable surfaces and creating spot fires. This home, burned in Lake Arrowhead, California, could have been saved with exterior sprinklers. We don’t know the full story here, but we are hoping something happened that prevented the folks present during the first photo from extinguishing the fire on the steps. From Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.


Why so resistant?

Over the last few decades, two firefighting traditions have collided with the expansion of homes into the wildland urban interface (the WUI). The result has been a severe case of cognitive dissonance over how to deal with the fire threat.

Municipal fire departments were originally organized to deal with structural fires, but their primary job often becomes saving lives. This is one reason why interior fire sprinklers have become a required part of public buildings. Interior sprinklers have been life savers, for both firefighters and civilians, in burning structures – they provide the environment and the time needed for people to escape. They are not, however, generally designed to save structures, especially considering the damage caused by the water.

The primary goal of wildland firefighters, on the other hand, is to suppress wildfires fueled by vegetation.

As increasing numbers of developments have pushed into wildlands, creating the infamous wildland urban interface, the response of fire agencies has depended upon their particular traditions and experiences. Wildfire agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire see the problem as one of too much vegetation. Consequently, they push for additional habitat clearance operations, fuel breaks, and prescribed burns. Municipal fire departments have focused on improving building codes (e.g. non-flammable roofing, ember-resistant vents) and more recently, defensible space.

However, as the increasing number of fatalities and destroyed communities from wildfires demonstrates, these measures are proving inadequate. The issue is that the physics of ember movement and the actual cause of homes igniting (by embers) has yet to be fully integrated into how fire agencies approach the wildfire problem, or as Cohen says, the home ignition problem.

Ironically, even though it is becoming well known that embers ignite and ultimately lead to the destruction of communities a mile or more ahead of the fire front (despite defensible space, fuel breaks, and habitat clearance projects), wildfire agencies and politicians keep focusing on the big flames produced by wildland trees and shrubs. The old municipal/wildland firefighting paradigms have become blinding. The failure to see the real problem is an example of how cognitive dissonance can have disastrous consequences.

How can we keep embers at bay? Current firefighting paradigms need to be replaced with ones based on how the expanding wildland urban interface and a warming climate are changing the environment. Only then will the scoffing over exterior sprinklers end and public policy begin to properly address the home ignition problem.

For additional recommendations on how to improve the fire safety of your home and community, please see our page on Protecting Your Home. Also please see our full set of recommendations to policy makers on how to reduce wildfire losses in California.

44 Comments on “Exterior Fire Sprinklers Saved 188 Properties – Wet homes don’t burn

  1. I tried to contact M-bar Technologies last spring, but received no reply. I then emailed someone on a local fire council in Kensington, CA (part of San Diego). I haven’t heard back from her since the first reply. I would like to install sprinklers but have no idea who does that in the San Diego area. Do you have any contacts?
    Thanks.

    • We at Evergreen Construction Inc provide installation of the WaveGUARD Exterior wildfire defense systems. The system is unique over any other wildfire defense system in the country. WaveGUARD patented exterior wild fire defense system allows your home, business or property to dispense water and fire retardant two sprinkler heads at one time, creating a wave of water to protect and defend it.

      Please visit the WaveGUARD website at
      https://waveguardco.com/
      Be sure to watch videos on the website

      • I’ve read all this information before. As I am 65 and my husband 72, I am afraid DIY is beyond our capabilities. We are in the process of designing a pool to use for recreation and as a future water source for a sprinkler/eave system. Hopefully someone will start building such systems before we have another devastating fire.

      • Yes, my system is more of an area system but will be available where ever you need it. The system will be completely self contained. You could pull water from a pool or add a tank. I am trying to finalize some legal paperwork. Hoping to have the prototype done next month. Once the paperwork is done I can take deposits on systems. Since we are located in Northern California, a system in San Diego wouldn’t be a problem. It could also be customized to you specific needs.

        On Fri, Sep 27, 2019, 4:14 PM The California Chaparral Institute Blog wrote:

        > Karen Berk commented: “I’ve read all this information before. As I am 65 > and my husband 72, I am afraid DIY is beyond our capabilities. We are in > the process of designing a pool to use for recreation and as a future water > source for a sprinkler/eave system. Hopefully someone w” >

  2. I’m all for this even though I don’t think it would have saved any homes in Paradise. I had sprinklers on my roof and running in my yard. When I left my house was dripping wet but was still incinerated. The two houses closest to me did had no suppression and survived untouched. When I rebuild I will have a better system God forbid this happens again. I will also stay to fight it next time with my own water supply. I’ve also said since the 2008 fire that the town should have had industrial spinklers on the the tree tops drawing from lake oroville in a time like this. People just rolled their eyes at me.

    • Thank you James. Yes, fire is indeed capricious. It exploits the weakest link. We’ve faced the same eye rolling with our proposals as well. Meanwhile the same policies keep failing.

      Very sorry you lost your home.

      • We at Evergreen Construction Inc. provide installation of the WaveGUARD Exterior Wildfire Defense System. The system is unique over any other wildfire defense system in the country. Wave guard patented exterior wild fire defense system allows your home, business or property to dispense water and fire retardant to sprinkler heads at one time creating a wave of water to protect and defend it.

        Please visit the WaveGUARD website at http://www.waveguardco.com, be sure to watch the videos on the webpage.

        Jill Suttle
        Jill@egconstructioninc.com
        P: 916-230-1407

    • I am so very sorry you lost your home.

      We at Evergreen Construction Inc. provide installation of the WaveGUARD Exterior Wildfire Defense System. The system is unique over any other wildfire defense system in the country. Wave guard patented exterior wild fire defense system allows your home, business or property to dispense water and fire retardant to sprinkler heads at one time creating a wave of water to protect and defend it.

      Please visit the WaveGUARD website at http://www.waveguardco.com, be sure to watch the videos on the webpage.

      Jill Suttle
      Jill@egconstructioninc.com
      P: 916-230-1407

    • I’m also from Paradise- I’m pretty sure our rainbirds helped save our home but I feel you James, its really irritating to hear anyone say “your home can survive a wildfire”. There is no such guarantee, particularly once nearby structure fires are part of the equation.

      Ours was a very half-assed system- 2 rainbirds, one on each side of our 1970s California rambler. We happened to be home- actually spotting a neighbors house on fire before we knew the town was fucked, like others, not receiving timely notification to GTFO.

      We had an evac list, my husband banged on the neighbors doors- some of them still asleep- and turned on the rainbirds while I got the pets in the car. We were out in a flash.

      I don’t kid myself that it was exclusively the sprinklers.

      I know many with sprinklers lost their homes. THERE WAS A LOT OF LUCK INVOLVED. A fire like Paradise will allow NO GUARANTEED SURVIVING HOMES- post fire, we’d see all concrete homes, shells still standing- burned out from inside. You have a single window, you have a weak point for a fire like the one we lived through.

      Hell on earth. All you can do is slightly improve your odds. I think everything we did- the materials, the landscaping, and the rainbirds- may have improved our chance of surviving home like 20%. Still not great odds when only 1,400 homes survive and 19,000 burn- most people who did what we did still got screwed.

      I think the rainbirds, along with fire-resistant materials and landscaping simply improved our odds just a little, and luck took care of the rest.

      Only 2 homes on our cul-de-sac survived, all my direct neighbors homes burned. Our windows cracked from the heat of a neighbors burning home, but did not blow out enough to let embers in or provide a backdraft of oxygen.

      We had scorch marks on every single external wall, but stucco doesn’t want to take. Thankfully our former shake roof had been replaced with fire-resistant fiberglass/asphalt. All the tar melted out it was so damn hot, we had to replace the roof and deal with water damage since we couldn’t get in for so long after the fire. Our roof had ember pitting and damage where fire tried to take- but the rainbirds kept any from really taking off. Our gutters, despite our best efforts did have pine needles in them- it was Paradise in November, 2 seconds after you cleaned them there were more. They didn’t take, because they were soaked.

      Almost everything inside was smoke damaged despite the windows staying in tact, and we had to throw away more than half of what we owned, but at least we could salvage some memories.

      It took more than a year and over 100k to fix the damage to our home with a sprinkler, that “survived” and actually on a casual glance, didn’t look too bad when we first got a look at it. It was our second full time job- restoring the house, fighting with insurance that doesn’t think they owe you a damn thing because it “survived”- trying to find anyone who would work on it- mostly they didn’t want to, and we worked with a lot of handymen & felons instead of professional contractors, because the contractors were happy to focus on new builds.

      People frequently ask if it would have been better had it just burned, honestly I can’t answer that question. We got irreplaceable things back, but restoration may have sucked years out of my life.

      There is no easy way to survive what we did… but I am installing rainbirds on the roof of my new home.

      Despite expecting to move back, we sold the one we restored a couple weeks ago. Too much trauma, when I looked at its beautiful newness, all I had was bad memories of what it took to get there. Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)

      • Thank you Pamela for sharing this. Your experience will help others. And you are right, there are certainly no guarantees… only things you can do to reduce the risk.

      • Pamela, I am glad your house survived and even though you are struggling with insurance and smoke damage, I hope it is worth it, considering. I do believe that rooftop sprinklers are useful when part of a “holistic” approach. In other words: it can’t hurt. Good luck!

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  4. This is Jack Cohen. I have written and presented that the first step for a more effective approach to preventing wildland-urban (WU) fire disasters during extreme wildfire conditions is to define the occurrence as a home ignition problem rather than one of controlling extreme wildfires. However, as may be implied by the blog, I DO NOT endorse sprinkler systems or any active response mechanisms as a substitute for homeowners creating ignition resistant homes. The concerns (“scoffs”) regarding sprinkler system effectiveness glibly dismissed are real and require serious analysis given the southern California WU fire context.
    The Ham Lake Fire case is not appropriate for southern California conditions.
    The Ham Lake Fire burned in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area-Gun Flint region of northern Minnesota. Sprinkler systems for wildfire containment (not just home protection) are a standard tactic in northern Minnesota and Ontario, Canada due to the abundance of lakes and a considerably different context than densely populated southern California during extreme wildfire conditions.

    • Jack, sorry we didn’t see your comment when you originally posted it.

      By no means did we mean to imply you are endorsing the use of exterior sprinklers. We concur that making homes themselves ignition resistant through ember resistant vents, etc. However, as you said yourself in the video linked below, sprinklers can provide an added level of protection. We need to utilize as many options as possible.

      “… because people, if they have the water supply, in fact can put their sprinklers on, wet things down, which definitely inhibits the firebrands, the flying embers that can potentially ignite this (vegetation)… putting the sprinklers out, it just guaranteed that anything like this that might have been fuel ends up being wetted, such that it’s no longer fuel.”

    • Dr. Cohen’s point is well taken and I for one, have followed his videos/advice to the letter in far-northern California; it has been so helpful. I think part of the problem is one of understanding fire conditions when they are at their worst: high winds and hot weather and w/o resources. It may seem obvious to some, but when considering potential scenarios it can outstretch the imagination of most people who have not witnessed such an event first hand, especially while looking at their home/property on a windless and blue-sky day and have never fought a wildfire personally.

      I do understand the desire and vision of someone attempting to rely on an automatic/manual sprinkler system to wet their house, but I fear that is unrealistic under most circumstances as the water could evaporate or be wind-blown. I have a sprinkler system to wet a wooden fence/photenia area in advance because of heavy fuels so I can direct my attention to other areas of concern, but that is only to slow the fire down, not extinguish it.

      I don’t mean to disparage sprinkler systems, but they are not the total answer imo, but a tool to buy time. If in doubt, take a drip torch and lite some leaves on fire and watch the creep on a windy day. Hopefully, you will have eliminated the ladder fuels that will ignite upper structure fuels.

      In the end, it is a holistic approach to buy time and hopefully you have an escape route and proper clothing/breathing apparatus to defend. It’s all good, but doubt a total solution in any event. Just my take and maybe wrong. Hope so.

      • We concur John, regarding a holistic approach. Nothing by itself is as effective as multiple solutions. We have never suggested otherwise. The problem, in regards to this discussion, is that sprinklers are often dismissed out of hand or misunderstood (they need to be on independent systems, they are not the total solution, etc.). It is almost a compulsion for some.

        As Jack suggested, the Ham Fire example was not in California, so the application is different. But what needs to be acknowledged, by Jack and others, is that exterior sprinklers can help. Jack said that himself. Indeed, they appear to have saved numerous structures during the Woolsey Fire in the Santa Monica Mountains, including the Malibu Creek Visitor Center. It’s OK to recognize that and still help people understand that protecting a home requires a multi-pronged strategy. We are not sure why there is so much resistance to adding exterior sprinklers to the mix.

      • Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that. I think your system has value and I wouldn’t say otherwise. I guess the implication was that somehow, it was a total system considering this discussion. Apparently that is not the case. I stand corrected, but I wonder how that got started?

      • Hi John. Actually, I was more replying to the whole discussion, not so much what you were saying. You had some thoughtful comments.

        Honestly, whenever I bring up exterior sprinklers during presentations or posts, there’s usually someone who gets extremely emotion about the topic, engaging in condescending, accusatory arguments against them. Sign of the times maybe, but I’ve got to feel something deeply personal is being triggered. Maybe they lost their home to a fire and see our suggestion as some kind of judgement on them (if you’d only had exterior sprinklers…). Or it challenges their own paradigm. They speak in absolute terms and can not recognize that these systems might have value as part of the whole. I may have contributed to this here with the headline, since many people don’t read, just react to headlines. Jack seemed to take offense to our term “scoffs.”

        Anyway, this is why we’re focusing our communication efforts in places like this and have left social media for the most part, especially Facebook. So wish the polarization social media has played a major role in creating would heal.

      • I get it and I don,t do FB. I wish you all the best luck because I know what you are doing is important. I think what you do works and is important. Good luck my friend.

  5. I come late to this discussion, but I was struck by Jame’s story of his house incinerating despite having his house/yard dripping with water. If you see this James, I would like to learn more about your opinion as to the reason. Thank you, John D.

  6. I am in the process of developing a 100% self contained wildfire protection unit that will provide 150 to 250+ foot circle of defensible area. Options will include automatic starting, remote control, 3/4 hr to multiple hours of run time, fire retardant, maintenance programs and more. Prices will include setup and training.

    Interested parties please contact me with your specific needs and I will try to add them into the design.

  7. I want to find out how I can get this installed now. Does anyone have that information?

  8. I’ve been searching the internet for some sort of automatic fire detection system that will trigger the electric start on a gas water pump. I haven’t been able to find anything appropriate for an off-grid cabin. I’m sure I’m missing something. Is there a list of fire detectors somewhere? Am I just googling the wrong terms?

  9. Pingback: Exterior sprinklers work, too many fires in southern California, and prescribed burning advocates engage in cultural appropriation | The California Chaparral Institute Blog

    • You mean why “isn’t” this info sent? That is the question we have been asking for years. Wildland fire agencies like Cal Fire and the US Forest Service are more concerned about clearing habitat and fighting wildfires than protecting communities, so that’s part of the problem. Municipal fire agencies are more enlightened, but many of them still just focus on vegetation too. We are seeing some changes, but not fast enough. It doesn’t help when Governor Newsom rejects bills that would help communities with retrofits.

      • There is a lot I would like to say about “Municipal” fire agencies and city council’s reluctance to thinning green belts and shepherding the homeless out of these tender boxes, but suffice it to say that it seems like we have learned little from the Paradise disaster. By that I mean, it’s great to thin forest, but there has been no attention to evacuation routes in terms of adjacent vegetation. This is where the rubber meets the road: when people have to drive through burning trees to get to the hwy. We’ve seen how this works out.

  10. In addition to the Ham Lake results, there are plenty of success stories where am exterior sprinkler system has protected a house from burning. You can read about two such examples of eave sprays and roof sprinkler systems that saved homes in the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego and the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise. And Frontline’s customer in Wyoming saved her home in the 2018 Roosevelt Fire . That said, when evaluating wildfire defense systems, there are a few critical capabilities. First, remote, satellite-enabled activation is key, so you can operate your system after you’ve evacuated or while travelling. Second, backup water and electricity sources are a must. And third, using an effective Class A firefighting foam, as described above, will amplify the protective wetting qualities of water.

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  12. One of the best articles that I’ve read in a very long time! I Took notes and surely gonna implement and test bunch of stuff you talked about.
    You’re a beast! Cheers, Ash

  13. Wow, thanks for explaining how during that fire, 188 properties had exterior fire sprinklers and all 188 of them survived. I never thought about putting up fire sprinklers on the outside of my house. I think I will get it done now that I know how effective they can be.

  14. We live in Southern Oregon & as of this minute we are level 1 evacuation. We bought the house 2 yrs ago but finally moved here full time in July
    We have a well & was wondering if you happen to know the min water pressure needed for sprinklers to work

  15. Pingback: To help California survive wildfires, focus on homes, not trees – Bodensee International

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