The October 2007 wildfires that burned across 600 square miles of Southern California and destroyed 1,500 homes have provided the first real-world test of the controversial "shelter in place" (SIP) program. Designed to permit residents of planned developments that meet strict fire-safety standards to remain in their homes as fires approach, SIP was developed after wildfires in the area destroyed 2,400 homes and killed 18 civilians in 2003.

Homes in SIP communities — which tend to be very high-end — incorporate numerous fire-resistant features, including noncombustible roofing and siding; boxed eaves with screened vents (to resist windblown embers); interior sprinkler systems; tempered-glass windows; and a 100-foot "defensible space" around the exterior, within which...

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