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The Twilight of the Wood Shingle Roof


Gerard Metal Roof installation in San Rafael, Marin County

Once the most popular steep-slope roofing systems in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can now find these quirky roofs on only a few homes and even fewer businesses today: wood shingles (or “shake” roofs).

It occurred to us at Wedge Roofing that in our nearly 40-years of roofing in the San Francisco Bay Area we have seen wooden shingle roofs go from being omnipresent to being quite rare. There is a good reason for this as California experiences the driest summer in years, and wildfires consume homes in our region.

Part of what prompted us to think about the history of the wood shingle roof being that Wedge Roofing recently completed an extensive wood shingle roof conversion on the San Rafael Community Center on B Street, removing the wood shingle mansard roof and replacing it with a Class-A fire rated Gerard stone-coated metal roof system.

The Gerard metal roof we installed in San Rafael is non-combustible, and specifically designed to protect the building from airborne embers. The interlocking fastening method prevents the panels from lifting and allowing blowing embers to ignite the roof deck. Along with clearing brush and debris away from a building, installing a stone-coated metal roof is one of the most proactive steps that can be taken to reduce the chance of a structure being destroyed by fire as well as reducing the fire’s ability to spread.

wood shake roof Marin County CA

A Wooden History

Made from the heartwood of local redwood and cedar trees, wood shingle and shake roofs were the most popular steep-slope roofing material used in the construction of 19th century Northern California buildings. The history of our area’s lumber production can still be seen in town names like “Mill Valley” and streets like “Miller Avenue,” and this is part of the reason why wood shingles, or "shake" roofs became so popular in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Despite this, even as early as 1912 the National Board of Fire Underwriters urged the elimination of wood shingle roofs and approved composition shingle roofs along with metal, slate and tile roofs as the best roofing materials as a non-combustible roofing system. Although asphalt shingles became a popular roofing choice in the early 20th century, wood shingle roofs remained popular for their aesthetic “earthy” look in many revival architectural styles. In post-war construction entire track home neighborhoods were built with wood shingle roofs and in the San Francisco Bay Area, wood shingle roofs and wood siding enjoyed another era of renaissance in the 1970’s for property owners seeking a more rustic look.

Beginning of the End - Firestorms

Gerard Stone coated metal roofs survive Oakland fire. Photo Credit Gerard

"I’ve seen too many homes burned to the ground that could’ve been prevented, a metal roof is one of - if not the - best preventative steps a homeowner can take to prevent the spread of residential fires and save their own homes." Jim McMullen, former California State Fire Marshall

In October 1991, the three-day Oakland Hills Firestorm resulted in 25 deaths, 150 injured and 3,354 homes destroyed. The fast-moving fire was fueled by hot, dry wind gusts carrying airborne-burning embers in all directions igniting home after home. According to FEMA, the major contributing factors to the devastation were a five-year drought, low humidity weather, wind gusts and, notably, wood shingle roofs and siding on the homes. Fire forensics from FEMA concluded " . . . the few homes left standing demonstrated the value of non-combustile roofing materials and brush clearance around the structure."

As proof of this, amidst the charred remains of the Oakland Hills homes stood only two remaining houses, both with Gerard Stone-Coated Metal Roofing Systems instead of the more popular wooden shingle option. (Photo credit: Gerard Metal Roof Systems)

An Identified Threat

Following the firestorm, throughout California’s wildland-urban interface, untreated wood-shingle roofs were identified as a major fire risk factor.

In an analysis of structure loss in the 1990 Santa Barbara Paint Fire, California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) assistant fire chief, Ethan Foote said the factors most important in structural survival were: roofing material, flammable vegetation clearance and a defending person.

Foote concluded the probability of structural survivability in the Santa Barbara fire with a non-combustible roof and thirty-foot vegetation clearance was 90%, without these measures the survivability was only 15%. These shocking figures and results of these past fires began to chip away at the popularity of wood shingle roofs and siding.

“Clearcutting” Unsafe Wood Shingles

We pride ourselves in providing the safest and most long-lasting roofing systems available to our clients. Being members of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Sonoma County communities, we watched the aforementioned events unfold along with our fellow citizens and we have also taken our cues from professionals like Fire Marshall McMullen and FEMA.

Accordingly, we are experts at remediating and replacing wood shingle roofs with elegant, efficient and extremely fire-safe Class-A rated roofing systems. In addition to Gerard Stone coated metal shingle roofing systems, we specialize in the installation of Class-A rated flat seam metal roofs, standing seam metal roofs, tile roofs, shingle roofs and slate roofs

For more information on how to protect your home or business during fire season, please read our blog, "Fire Resistant Roof Maintenance."

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