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Fueled by drought, dry vegetation, and extreme wind, wildfires across California wiped out thousands of homes and claimed more than 100 lives in 2017 and 2018. These were the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. While they are a natural part of California’s landscape, the western United States’ fire season is beginning earlier and ending later each year.
This year, 198,392 acres of land have been lost to forest fires and 732 structures have been damaged or destroyed by wildfire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Fire season has increased by 75 days across the Sierras, affecting other states, including Kansas, Colorado, and Utah.
To prepare for this increasingly long wildfire season, officials across the western United States often recommend trimming grass and pruning trees. California even implements an annual brush clearance inspection. In light of recent events, however, community leaders are urging homeowners to take extra precautions beyond standard procedures.
Of course, residents should consider thinning out vegetation, but they must also start thinking beyond greenery to other aspects of their property like windows, walls, fences, and vents. With smart design and landscaping, homeowners can create defensible space around their homes and avert the flames and embers of approaching wildfires. Here’s how to keep your home and family as safe as possible during a fire.
Your yard is the first thing fire will reach, which means it’s your first line of defense against the blaze. Your lawn can be divided into three risk zones. Zone one extends within 5 feet from the exterior walls of your home, shed or garage. Avoid planting bushes or using mulch within this zone, as these are highly flammable. If these catch fire, the heat can easily break windows, shooting hot embers into your house.
If you have a deck, it should be fire-resistant. Be sure to remove any debris from on top or underneath it — like furniture or dry leaves — in preparation for a wildfire. If there are any trees in Zone One, either remove them or trim branches to ensure they don’t overlap with the house.
Zone two includes anything within 5 to 30 feet of your home. Large trees should be at least 10 feet away from the building, and any debris, plants or mulch should be removed to avoid setting flame to the tree canopy. Take extra care to prune trees so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet from the ground. Smaller ones should be pruned one-third of the way up.
Most fences are located within the second zone, and those made of wood can easily ignite. Consider fencing off your property with iron, brick or concrete barriers to better fireproof your lawn and home. Creating spaces and breaks between flammable plants and other combustible items will slow the fire’s approach. Make sure your fence is fire-resistant, and take extra caution by keeping vegetation away from it.
The third and final zone covers anything between 30 and 100 feet from the house. This zone should be used to slow the approach and reduce the intensity of the approaching flames. As in the closer two zones, ensure that trees are 10 feet apart from one another. If zone three overlaps with your neighbor’s densely packed landscape, discuss the potential risks with them. If your property is fireproofed, but their’s isn’t, your home and family is still very much at risk.
Roof and Gutters
Windblown embers can easily catch on roofs and gutter debris, so making them fireproof is an absolute must. Replace wood and shingle roofs with Class A coverings, such as asphalt, tile or steel. These materials have won the highest rating in fire-resistance, making them the least flammable. If you have a Spanish tile roof, make sure all cracks are completely sealed, as this material is more prone to openings. Any unsealed crevices invite embers inside your attic and can easily set your roof ablaze.
Additionally, you may apply fire-retardant chemicals to your roof, like Class A foam or Phos-Chek, to further protect your home. It’s also essential that you keep up with roof maintenance by regularly clearing away debris like fallen leaves or pine needles. Routine inspections will allow you to identify broken or missing shingles that need replacing.
Prevent the accumulation of debris in your gutters to maximize your home’s fire resistance. Vegetation, birds’ nests and fallen leaves can all collect in your rain spouts and gutters. Make cleaning out the gutters part of your routine roof inspection. Not only will this help prevent damage to your roof and exterior, but it will also decrease the likelihood of a fire in your gutters, especially in dry seasons.
Windows and Doors
Openings to your home, like windows and doors, are the weakest link in defending the building. Glass window panes are more susceptible to shattering inward due to the heat differential driven by an outside fire. Depending on the type of glass, a window that is exposed to external flames will combust and break within just three minutes, allowing embers into the home.
Protect your home from wildfires by replacing single-pane windows — typically found in older homes — with dual-pane, tempered glass. It’s four times more resistant to breaking, providing a much stronger barrier in the heat of a fire. You might also consider installing metal window screens, which will further improve the performance of your windowpanes. Fine mesh screens will also help keep embers out if the glass does break.
The strongest defense, however, would be to place roll-down metal fire doors above windows. Even if a window is open, they will withstand the heat of a wildfire for up to three hours, depending on the classification.
Doors are also fire-resistant weak spots. Solid core wood doors typically provide about 20 minutes of fire-resistant protection. Materials like aluminum or steel can buy you much more time, however. This applies to garage doors, as well. Consider a metal panel garage door and install weather stripping at the base to prevent embers from blowing under it. To avoid an explosion, store all combustible and flammable liquids and gases away from the garage door.
Windows and doors aren’t the only openings in your home. Vents can also invite embers inside the building. Large vent openings in attics and underneath flooring must be protected with one-eighth-inch mesh coverings to break up windblown embers and keep them from entering your home.
Originally, officials worried that fine mesh coverings would become plugged with debris or paint and negatively affect a home’s moisture management. However, California is allowing these vent coverings in response to recent wildfires. This response is outlined in Chapter 7A of the California Building Code. Now, state regulations require all building vents to resist embers and flames or be covered with noncombustible wire screening.
Your home’s exterior plays a huge role in protecting the building’s structural integrity. Wood siding may look great, but it is highly combustible and not a smart choice for houses in fire-prone areas like California. Instead, use materials like stucco, fiber cement, tile or metal to build your home.
Pay careful attention to the design of overhangs, balconies, and decks when designing your home, as these are more susceptible to embers and flames. If there is a particularly severe area of exposure, your architect can create a firewall. At the very least, make sure your house has a brick or rock foundation so flames are deflected at the very base of the building.
If building a new home isn’t part of the budget, paint the exterior walls of your existing house with fire-retardant paint. Either buy paint with protective chemicals or simply mix some sand into regular colorant. This might make the texture a bit rough, but it will add an extra layer of protection to the building’s exterior. Most construction materials, like brick and stucco, are already rugged, to begin with.
Create a Plan
House fires killed 2,695 people in 2017 and resulted in a total loss of $7.8 trillion. In that year alone, more than 371,000 homes were lost in fires. Clearly, the “it won’t happen to us” mentality is not enough to protect you and your family from a house fire. Anyone and everyone has the potential to be harmed or killed in a blaze, so your household must be prepared by creating a plan of action and escape.
Before drafting an escape plan, establish a set of practices to prevent fires and promote safety within the home.
- Install smoke alarms on every level of your home and test them monthly. Also, make sure all detectors are interconnected so, if one alarm sounds, all others will as well.
- Store lighters, matches and combustible chemicals away from children and teach them basic fire safety. Don’t put out oil fires with water.
- Keep flammable objects away from heat sources such as stoves, water heaters, furnaces and space heaters.
- Learn proper fire extinguisher safety and purchase one to be kept in your home.
- If windows or doors have security bars, ensure they can be easily disarmed from within in case of emergencies.
After you and your family have discussed and established basic fire safety rules and precautions, create an escape plan together.
- Identify at least two escape routes out of every room.
- Keep doorways and home entrances clear of any debris or furniture.
- Delegate someone to assist small children or the elderly. Have a backup plan in case this person is unable to help others escape.
- Specify a meeting spot a safe distance from the home where family members should gather.
In addition to creating a family escape plan, you should also build an emergency kit and store it in an easily accessible place. It should include some of these basic items:
- First-aid kit
- Battery-powered radio
- Food and water
- Copies of important paperwork and documents, such as birth certificates, passports, warranties and marriage licenses
- Prescription medications
- Personal items such as family photos, letters or keepsakes
Each person should have their own personal kit ready and on hand in case of emergencies, especially if you live in an area prone to wildfires.
When You’ve Done All You Can
Wildfires are fast, unpredictable and can start anywhere, at any moment. Even if you’ve taken proper precautions to protect your land, a fire can still make its way to your home. It’s important to realize remaining inside the structure will not save it — this will only put you and your family in danger. Instead, recognize you’ve done everything you can to prepare your home for this moment, and get ready to leave it behind.
Take initiative and stay up-to-date and aware of any voluntary or mandatory evacuation announcements. You may be advised to assemble at a prearranged location to await transfer out of the vicinity. Officials will determine which areas must be evacuated and provide escape routes depending on the fire’s location, wind patterns, and surrounding landscape.
Evacuate your home as soon as it is recommended by local fire officials to avoid being caught in traffic or incoming fire and smoke. Leaving early will also reduce road congestion, allows everyone to escape effectively and safely, and gives firefighters better access to do their job.
Remember to unlock your windows and move any combustible liquids or flammable materials away from walls, doors, and windows. Keep your lights on so firefighters can see through the smoke if they need to attend to your home. It’s also smart to turn off propane tanks and move them away from your garage or deck. Don’t forget to bring your emergency kit and all-important personal belongings if time allows.
Finally, check in on your neighbors and spread the word of evacuation to help everyone get out of the area safely.
As you leave your home behind, know you did everything you possibly could to fireproof and protect it, and evacuating is the best option for saving you and your family.
You did everything you could to keep your property safe, and that’s what matters.