How to protect your home from wildfire
Five steps fire departments can share with their communities to minimize wildfire risk
The frequency and severity of wildfires is growing throughout the United States.
Wildfire season traditionally spans from July to October, but climate change is expanding the season far outside its boundaries. According to CAL FIRE, the fire season across the West is beginning earlier and ending later each year.
The growth of the wildland-urban interface (WUI) in the U.S. also plays an important role. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the WUI saw a 41% increase in homes and a 33% increase in land from 1990 to 2010, making it the fastest growing land use type in the contiguous U.S. Data from Verisk’s 2019 Wildfire Risk Analysis show that more than 4.5 million homes in the western U.S. are currently at high or extreme risk of wildfires.
As climate change and the WUI growth trend continue, wildfires become an increasing problem for fire departments across the country. The key question: How can fire service professionals prepare their communities?
Local fire departments can work with homeowners and residents to ensure they follow these measures to protect their homes in the event of a wildfire.
1. Clear your roof and deck
Burning embers and small flames are the main reason that homes and other structures ignite during a wildfire, according to the NFPA. Embers are pieces of burning wood or vegetation that can travel more than a mile when they become airborne. If these embers land on your home, the risk of ignition is high.
For this reason, the use of Class A roofing material is recommended if you live in a wildfire-prone area. Asphalt shingles, clay or concrete tiles, metal and/or slate are all fire-resistant materials that are rated to withstand severe fire exposure.
If your roof was constructed using wooden shingles, you can treat them with fire retardant or install a rooftop sprinkler system. The best solution, however, remains changing your roofing materials to those that are fire resistant.
Perform regular roof inspections and maintenance. Embers can enter any rooftop opening, so make sure you repair or replace any broken, loose or missing shingles or tiles and caulk any cracks. Clean your roof, deck and gutters regularly to remove flammable materials, such as dead leaves, pine needles and other debris.
2. Keep embers out of your eaves and vents
Prevent embers from entering your home and burning it from the inside-out. Box-in open eaves, and screen and/or seal vents and other openings. If you have a pet door, make sure it has an effective seal and keep it closed during fire season.
Radiant heat can melt plastic skylights and cause the glass in windows and doors to crack or burst, allowing embers to enter your home. Install double-pane, tempered glass windows that can withstand higher temperatures. Make sure all windows have screens.
3. Create defensible space around your home
Your defensible space includes your home and everything within a 100-foot radius. Radiant heat can ignite your home from up to 100 feet away, and nearby combustible material can serve as a conduit for flames to reach your home. Only safeguarding the 5 feet around your home leaves you at substantial risk if you live in a wildfire-prone area.
Consider the three zones around your home when creating a secure perimeter. In applying this information, remember that degree of slope may warrant an increase in the recommended distances.
The zones are measured as the distance from all structures:
- Zone 1: 0 to 5 feet. Use hardscaping to create fuel breaks. Use nonflammable mulch products. Irrigate or water your lawn and plants regularly. Remove dead material from plants. Do not plant vegetation within 5 feet of your home or deck. Do not store flammable materials on or under your deck.
- Zone 2: 5 to 30 feet. Plant and maintain trees and shrubs in well-spaced clusters. Remove dead plants and tree branches. Maintain trees by allowing at least 10 feet between crowns. Prune tree branches up to 12 feet (do not exceed one-third of the tree height).
- Zone 3: 30 to 100 feet. Plant and maintain trees and shrubs in well-spaced clusters. Remove dead plants and tree branches. Maintain trees by allowing at least 10 feet between crowns. Prune lower tree branches.
4. Plan for emergency responder access
To ensure firefighters are able to find your home, make sure street names and numbers are clearly marked and legible. Driveways should be wide enough and have enough vertical clearance to allow fire apparatus and other first responder vehicles to access your home.
Creating a defensible space around your home increases the ability of firefighters to defend your home from wildfires. Keep in mind that they are trained only to protect structures when it is safe to do so.
If firefighters are unable to protect your home during a wildfire, the presence of a defensible space increases the chances that your home will survive. As with all things in life, there are no guarantees, but it always pays to be proactive and strive for the best possible outcome.
5. Collaborate with neighbors
If you live in a WUI community, it is important to liaise with your neighbors to prepare and plan for wildfires. Doing so allows you to collectively identify and mitigate risks before disaster strikes. As Connor McGuigan of the Sierra Club wisely stated, “If you live in a densely populated area, your home is ultimately only as fire-proof as your neighborhood’s weakest link.”
Multiple resources exist to guide this process. A few are listed here:
- Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). A CWPP helps communities identify their priorities for the protection of life, property and critical infrastructure in the WUI. A CWPP may address issues, such as wildfire response, hazard mitigation, community preparedness and structure protection. For more information, refer to Preparing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan and Community Guide to Preparing and Implementing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (a supplemental resource guide to the former).
- Firewise USA. This NFPA program empowers homeowners and residents to increase the ignition resistance of their homes and communities. Currently, more than 1,500 Firewise USA sites in 42 states are taking action and ownership by preparing and protecting their homes against the threat of wildfire.
- Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. NFPA created a Prep Day to raise community awareness of wildfire risk, share information and knowledge, and help homeowners and residents improve the survival of their homes and neighborhoods. To download a Prep Day toolkit, go to wildfireprepday.org.
Plan, prepare, collaborate
Wildfire management has become exceedingly more complex since Smokey Bear first conveyed his forest fire prevention message to the public in the 1940s. But Smokey continues to spread his message, and fire departments are still fighting human-caused wildfires.
Today’s firefighters, however, face the complicating factors of rapid and pervasive climate change and the expansion of communities into the WUI. Given that neither issue is likely to be mitigated in short order, the logical path forward is for fire departments and the communities they serve to plan, prepare and collaborate to protect their homes and property from the risk of wildfires.