PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

After watching wildfires leapfrog from one tinder dry rooftop to another in an onslaught of flame that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in 2003, San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty had seen enough California homes go up in smoke.

The county soon banned exterior wood on homes.

In particular, the target was highly combustible cedar-shake shingles. “Wood shingle roofs have a horrific history of real fire problems,” said Brierty.

Fire issues aside, cedar shake roofs have long been the darlings of homeowner associations who mandate a common appearance from home to home. Cedar shakes have had little competition as king of the rooftop. Imitations looked thin and flimsy without the patchwork variety so evident when shingles are nailed on one at a time.

Some recent shingle innovations, however, may knock cedar shakes off the pedestal. At a recent builder trade show, visitors saw faux cedar shakes that passed the all-important appearance test. Few building pros could tell the difference between the real and unreal.

At least one company, DaVinci Roofscapes, attracted builder and consumer attention with a twin of a shake shingle made of engineered polymer. Unlike previous shake contenders, this 5/8-inch thick shingle answers the aesthetic test along with fire and hail-resistant features that plague real wood.

The shingles carry a Class A fire rating, meaning the polymer won’t ignite easily. If anything, it will melt slightly, then char.

Lake Arrowhead, Calif., roofer Mike Copp says this new product resolved his doubts that any manufactured shake could catch on in his area where weather extremes, in addition to fire, are tough on any shingle. Although the product is new, Copp has already installed numerous roofs with the new shingle.

DaVinci packages five different widths of shingle in a bundle that are nailed on singly just like real shakes. The varying widths and color options ensure the random pattern that is unique to wood roofs.

While he has yet to break through the barrier of covenants thrown up by homeowner associations, some gated communities are starting to take notice of the polymers as a viable option.

Because the new shingles are heavy polymer, homeowners can expect to see better protection from hail. John Humphreys of DaVinci says this is attractive to insurance companies who shell out millions annually to replace dimpled or split wood roofs.

But the new shingles have something in common with real wood: high cost. Copp says the installed price for both wood and polymer is in the $600 to $900 range per 100 foot square. That means an average roof can cost more than $20,000, a far cry from typical asphalt shingle roofing.