Preparing your home for fire can reduce the possibility of damage and increase the chances of your home surviving wildfire. Over the last ten years, more than 35,000 structures have been destroyed by wildfires.
There are three ways that your home can be exposed to wildfire damage: direct flames, radiant heat from plants or structures burning nearby, and flying embers. Flying embers can travel long distances from a main wildfire and ignite surfaces on your home; they are responsible for most home destruction due to wildfires.
Your Action Plan for Fire
In the case of a nearby wildfire, it is important to have a mitigation plan ready for your house, your family and your valuable possessions. Here are some tips:
Make sure you’re properly insured.
Create and practice an emergency preparedness plan. What will you do if you have to evacuate? What are your escape routes and meeting points? What are news and government information sources for wildfire updates? Who can your family contact during an evacuation to coordinate and make sure everyone is safe?
Identify an outdoor water source and be prepared with a hose that can reach any area of your property. Also have a fire extinguisher, shovel, rake, and bucket available for fire emergencies.
Keep important items in a fireproof place. Securely store digital copies of important documents outside your home.
To mitigate the danger of forest and wild fires to your home, it is important to reduce the extent to which your property acts as a source of fuel for sustaining fire. Homes contain and are surrounded by flammable materials, but often homes themselves sustain fire in urban areas. The most effective ways of reducing your fire danger are to protect your roof and home from embers, build from fire resistant materials, create a fire-resistant perimeter around your home, and carefully consider materials and vegetation in your surrounding area.
Your “home ignition zone” encompasses your house and everything within 100 to 200 feet surrounding it. Radiant heat from a wildfire can ignite a house from up to 100 feet away and can spread quickly towards your home if there are enough combustible materials in between. Therefore, it is important to create a defensible space between 30 to 100 feet of your home to safeguard from flames approaching your property. The home ignition zone is divided into three zones based on the effects of radiant heat:
Immediate Zone / Perimeter: The home and the area 0 to 5 feet from the furthest exterior point of the home. This is the most important zone and should be as well protected against embers as possible.
Intermediate Zone: 5 to 30 feet from the furthest point of the home. Within this zone you will want to limit combustible materials from vegetation or items stored outside.
Extended Zone: 30 to 100, possibly 200 feet. A great place to use landscaping to decrease the severity of a possible fire as it approaches your home.
Securing Your Home
Use the following checklist to see what mitigation actions are appropriate for you.
Immediate Zone / Perimeter (0 to 5 feet):
Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, particularly inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Test your alarms every month and replace batteries when needed.
Store all combustible and flammable liquids away from ignition sources.
Remove vegetation and combustible materials from within five feet of windows, glass doors, and decks. This includes firewood, outdoor furniture, playsets etc. Use hard landscaping options like gravel, pavers, concrete or noncombustible mulch within this five foot zone. Using limited numbers of wildfire-resistant plants will also keep your risk low. Do not park vehicles within this zone.
Cover all vent openings with 1/16 or ⅛ inch metal mesh. Fiberglass and plastic mesh shouldn’t be used because they can melt and burn at high temperatures. You can also instal ember and flame resistant vents, called WUI vents. Chimneys should also be covered, but with mesh no smaller than ⅜ inch and no larger than 1/2 inch.
Regularly clean your roof, gutters, decks, and the base of walls to remove accumulations of plant debris like fallen leaves, needles and other flammable materials. Use a corrosion-resistant and noncombustible metal drip edge and gutter cover for extra protection against debris buildup.
Intermediate Zone (5 to 30 feet):
Create a fire-resistant zone by removing leaves, yard debris, and any flammable material like propane and firewood within 30 feet around your home.
Create “fuel breaks” with driveways, walkways, patios, and decks made from non-combustible materials.
Space trees with at least 18 feet between the crown of each tree. Limit planting of trees and shrubs to small clusters to break up the continuity of vegetation across the landscape.
Extended Zone (30 to 100 feet):
Reduce available fuel in this area by spacing plants out, pruning low-hanging or dead branches, and watering vegetation. Maintaining healthy, well-spaced, and trimmed plant life around your home can be a benefit from fire because vegetation can block wind-blown embers from reaching your home.
Remove large piles of vegetation around sheds or other outbuildings.
Trees 30 to 60 feet from your home should have at least 12 feet between canopy tops and trees 60 to 100 feet from your home should have at least 6 feet based on National Fire Protection Association data.
Home Design and Retrofitting Mitigation
Update your roofing material to grade-A fire resistant. Your roof is the most vulnerable part of your home because it can be susceptible to flying embers. Wood and shingle roofs are especially at risk. It is also good to block any spaces between your roof tiles and the underlying sheathing or decking to prevent debris from accumulating.
Build or remodel your outside walls and deck with fire resistant materials. Wood products like boards, panels, and shingles are not good choices for fire-prone areas, especially areas with high building density. Ignition resistant building materials include stucco, fiber cement siding, fire resistant composite or PVC decking, and fire-retardant-treated wood.
Replace old windows with multi-paned windows that have at least one pane of tempered glass. This reduces the chance of breakage in high heat or fire conditions. Installing screens will also increase resistance to embers and decrease radiant heat exposure.
If you have fencing attached to your home that is made of combustible materials, replace at least the first five feet with metal fencing or other noncombustible options. Use lattice fencing of gates instead of solid privacy panels. This helps prevent fire from spreading along your fence to your home.
Smoke is one of the most dangerous aspects of wildfire, even if a fire is not near your home. Long term exposure to even relatively low levels of smoke can damage your health, especially if you have preexisting conditions that increase your risk.
To keep yourself safe from particulate matter in smoky air during wildfires, have N95 masks ready and pay attention to air quality.
Buy a HEPA filter to purify the air in your home. Upgrade the filters in existing HVAC systems to trap particulate matter. Identify a room that can be closed from outside air during extreme situations.
Finally, it’s important to ensure easy access to your home for emergency personnel in the case of a fire. This includes making sure that your driveway follows state and local codes to allow emergency vehicles to reach your property. For the same reason, gates on your property should open inwards and be large enough to accommodate emergency equipment. It also helps if your address is clearly visible from the road.
Reducing the risk of fire is the responsibility of everyone who lives and works in the community. Community-wide mitigation efforts use many different fire adaption tools. These efforts are especially important if your community is within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the area where high concentrations of vegetative fuels and infrastructure meet.
Below is information about some common tools to create a fire adapted community:
A community wildfire protection plan (CWPP) identifies the risk of wildfire within a community, outlines ways to mitigate that risk, and helps organize the work of risk reduction on the ground. CWPPs should be updated and implemented regularly.
Controlled burning programs are a crucial part of reducing overall fire risk. Burning is a natural part of maintaining ecosystems in nature, especially prairie environments. Controlled burns allow the landscape to burn off built-up excess vegetation to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire. This can create a fuel buffer around and inside a community and increase safety for residents and homes. Do not try doing controlled burns on your own, however; coordinate with your local fire department or other authority.
Having a volunteer or career fire department for fire protection within your community plays a big role in reducing risk to the residents. These organizations can help with evacuation training, designation of safe zones and evacuation routes, and promoting fire safety practices.
Communities within a Wildland Urban Interface can follow specific guidelines that define best practices for construction within a WUI community. This can also mean restricting new developments in high risk areas. These plans outline resistant materials for development and sometimes prohibit high-risk cedar shake roofs, siding or fencing. Codes and ordinances are specific to an individual community.
As homeowners, it is our responsibility to work with local leaders to help your community coexist with the risk of fire. When your area is threatened, it is a good idea to reach out to nearby neighbors, family and friends to share information about threats and action plans.
Mitigation and insurance will help reduce damage done to your home by a fire and the cost of repairing or rebuilding your home. If you have suffered from a fire, make sure emergency services are on the way, that your loved ones are managing well emotionally and physically, and do not enter a fire-damaged home until fire authorities say that it is safe to return.
Often properties can be affected by several kinds of extreme weather; learn to protect your home from other types of extreme climate risk.