By George Warren

NEVADA COUNTY (CBS13) – Thirty years ago veteran firefighters had never seen anything like the 49er Fire, a wildfire started by a mentally-ill transient burning toilet paper.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Sean Griffis was a 25-year-old rookie when the fire broke out on Sept. 11, 1988 and he remembers a conversation with a seasoned firefighter.

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“The battalion chief said this is going to be the fire of the future,” Griffis recalled. “This is going to be the fire of the new millennium.”

Swipe Below to See Images Of 49er Fire

Over the course of three days, the 49er Fire covered 53 square miles and destroyed 148 homes. At the time it was the third most destructive wildfire in California history.

Credit: FireSafe Council Nevada County

Lessons Learned

80 percent of the homes destroyed in the 49er Fire lacked adequate defensible space. California later adopted stricter standards for areas at high risk for fire; 100 feet of clear space around homes and other structures.

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Nevada County Fire Marshal Terry McMahan says he still faces a constant challenge convincing some property owners to clear their land.

“A lot of simple things that homeowners can do,” he said. “We just have to remind them from time to time.”

The Danger from Blowing Embers

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But new research shows that defensible space can only go so far in protecting structures. The South Carolina-based Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety says as many as 90 percent of homes and other buildings damaged or destroyed by wildfire were ignited by embers and not the main front of the fire.

IBHS president and CEO Roy Wright says embers the size of a human hand can be blown a mile or more from the main fire.

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“We look at (cases) where, for up to two hours, these embers are showering onto the house,” he said.

Wright says defensible space and fire-resistant construction practices go “hand in glove” in preventing fire losses.

The IBHS conducted a demonstration in a test chamber with a model duplex that was showered with blowing embers. The side of the duplex built with conventional materials quickly ignited; the side built with fire-resistant materials survived undamaged.

On the fire-resistant side the eaves were closed, the siding was fiber cement board, the windows were dual-pane with tempered screens and rock replaced traditional mulch at the entry.

Do New Building Codes Go Far Enough?

California has adopted newer building codes that require fire-resistant construction, but only in areas with the most severe fire risk. The IBHS wants the state to go further.

“California has the right pieces in play,” Wright says. “They should apply it more broadly in the state.”

Sean Griffis, the Cal Fire battalion chief, says what was once considered the “fire of a lifetime” seems to be happening now every year– and fire statistics prove the point.

The 49er Fire, the third most destructive fire at the time, doesn’t even make the top 20 today.

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See the list of California’s most destructive wildfires on record.