By Pam Kan-Rice
California homeowners enjoy reduced risk of losing their houses to wildfire due to the research of Mill Valley resident Steve Quarles. The UC Cooperative Extension wood durability advisor retired Aug. 1 after 26 years of university service.
Although he was based at the UC Richmond Field Station in Contra Costa County, Californians throughout the state use Quarles’ research-based information on the performance of wood products and wood-framed structures to protect their homes from wildfire. Serving on a national committee, he helped develop fire standards for ASTM, a professional society that develops consensus-based standards for building materials.
“Steve Quarles has worked tirelessly for many years to help develop the country's leading building material solutions to the wildfire problem that plagues our communities,” said Kate Dargan, former California State Fire Marshal.
“Steve's research is valuable, and will be for many years to come, to the firefighters that are in harm’s way, to the communities that struggle for disaster resiliency, and to the homeowners that choose to protect their lives and valuables using material and information he has provided,” said Dargan, who is now president of emergency intelligence software company Intterra Inc. in Nevada County.
“For years the major emphasis on what to do to prepare for wildfires was to clear def
ensible space,” said Julie Rogers, executive director of the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council. “This was a very simplistic and incomplete approach to a complex problem. Steve’s research, disseminated by his writings and numerous outreach talks and demonstrations, has greatly helped to swing the balance over to a more balanced approach, which is that both vegetation and the home need significant attention if homes and communities are to be spared from wildfires.”
Building code changes were made in San Diego County based on information from Quarles’ testing of building materials.
“He helped design testing criteria, which is critical,” said Cliff Hunter, former fire marshal for San Diego County and now fire marshal for Rancho Santa Fe.
Fire officials could determine the cause of fires, but didn’t have their own resources for conducting research.
“We knew houses burned because embers got into the house,” Hunter explained. “We asked Steve, ‘How do embers get in the house?’”
Quarles determined the many ways embers can enter a house, then joined San Diego fire officials at community meetings to educate homeowners, contractors and developers, building officials and planners.
“Steve is probably one of the country’s foremost authorities on ignition-resistant building construction,” said Ed Smith, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension natural resource specialist.
The combination of Quarles’ knowledge of fire and moisture effects on houses is a unique resource, Smith said.
“For example, we know houses are vulnerable to embers entering through attic, eave and foundation vents,” he explained. “But you have to have vents, they are critical for ventilation to remove moisture. If you were to close them off, moisture would cause wood decay problems. Steve provides practical advice to homeowners on how to accomplish both.”
Smith, who has collaborated with Quarles for more than six years, added, “Not only is Steve an expert in his field, he also possesses the ability to convey it to lay audiences. He has always been very approachable to homeowners when teaching classes.”
Julie Rogers of the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council agreed, noting that Quarles has participated in Mendocino’s annual Wildfire Preparedness Expo for four years.
“His talk and demos of how various building materials burn, or don’t, have always been the attendees’ favorite part of the six-hour event,” said Rogers. “It’s what draws people the most, and what they remember the longest.”
Quarles joined UC in 1985 as a faculty member at the UC Forest Products Laboratory. He became head of the Wood Building Research Center at the Forest Products Lab in 1992. In 2000, he became a UC Cooperative Extension advisor. Quarles is also associated with the UC Center for Fire Research and Outreach.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in wood science from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and his master’s and Ph.D. in wood science from the University of Minnesota.
Although he is leaving UC, the university has granted Quarles emeritus status and he will continue to interact with his extension colleagues while studying the relationship between homes and fire at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety Research Center, where he has been hired as a Senior Scientist for Hurricane/High-Wind Building Durability and Fire Protection.
“He is highly regarded for his opinion and knowledge, I’m not sure how we’re going to replace him,” Smith said.
Recently Quarles and Smith collaborated on a study comparing the relative combustibility of eight mulch treatments commonly used in the landscape around homes. They published a manual, “The Combustibility of Landscape Mulches,” which can be downloaded for free at http://firecenter.berkeley.edu/node/65.