Protecting Your Property Against Wildfires
As the climate is changing, wildfires are becoming increasingly more common these days. These devastating flames have impacted millions of people and properties. While wildfires cannot be avoided entirely, safeguarding your property and home can help reduce the potential damage.
The frequency and intensity of wildfires are increasing across the globe. In the US Wildfire season is generally from July to October, but climate change extends the season far beyond its traditional borders. The fire season in the western US is starting earlier and finishing later each year, according to CAL FIRE.
As wildfires grow, becoming more devastating, they are imposing even more challenges on fire departments around the world. The essential question remains; How can firefighters prepare their communities?
Local fire departments often collaborate with their communities like schools, homeowners and other local residents to ensure certain precautions are being taken to protect their homes from a wildfire.
Primary Threats to Your Property During Wildfires
According to research on home damage vs. home survival in wildfires; embers and small flames are the primary ways most dwellings burn. Embers are flaming fragments of flying wood and plants that can travel more than a mile through the wind to ignite homes, debris, and other flammable items.
Homeowners can prepare their properties to withstand ember attacks and reduce the risk of fire hitting homes or attachments. Experiments, models, and post-fire investigations have revealed that homes burn due to the house's condition and around the foundation. This scenario is known as the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ).
Home Ignition Zones: Create 3 Defensible Spaces
The notion of the home ignition zone was developed in the late 1990s by former USDA Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen, following some groundbreaking experimental studies into how homes burn due to radiant heat from forest fires. There are three zones in the HIZ. Not all zones will apply to everyone's home. Those that live in apartments or condos, or a tight suburban neighborhood will not have to monitor all 3 zones. In fact, apartment and condo owners are not normally the people in charge of monitoring anything but their immediate home.
~Zone 1 | The Immediate Zone: 0 Feet – 5 Feet
~The home and the region 0-5' from the home's furthest attached exterior point; are classified as a non-combustible zone. According to science, this is the most critical zone to take rapid action since it is the most exposed to embers. START WITH THE HOUSE, then continue into the Immediate Zone's landscaping.
- Clear the roof and gutters of any dead leaves, debris, or pine needles that could catch fire.
- To avoid ember penetration, replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles.
- Install 1/8-inch metal mesh screening to keep embers from passing through the eaves vents.
- Clean dirt from outside attic vents and install 1/8 inch metal mesh screening.
- Replace any damaged or loose window screens and any shattered windows. Screen or box-in areas beneath patios and decks with wire mesh to keep debris and flammable objects at bay.
- Remove any flammable material from the exterior of the walls, including mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, and firewood heaps. Remove everything that is stored beneath decks or porches, especially anything easily flammable.
~Zone 2 | The Intermediate Zone: 5 Feet – 30 Feet
~Zone 2 included 5-30' from the home's farthest outside point. Using careful landscaping / hardscaping or establishing breaks that might impact and reduce fire behavior is key in this zone. Most home owners will likely have a yard of some sort, this is the area we are referring to here. Whether you have a little patch of grass or a full yard, be sure to make sure the below upkeep is maintained.
- Remove any vegetation from beneath stationary propane tanks.
- You can create ‘fuel breaks’ via driveways, walkways / paths, patios, and decks.
- Mow lawns and natural grasses to about four inches.
- Remove ‘ladder fuels’ (vegetation beneath trees) to prevent a surface fire from climbing the trees and reaching the crowns. Prune trees up to six to ten feet from the ground. However, do not prune more than one-third of the total tree height for shorter trees or bushes.
- Trees should be spaced at least eighteen feet apart, with the distance increasing with the amount of slope.
- Tree planting should be arranged so that the mature canopy is no closer than 10 feet from the structure's edge.
- To break up the continuity of the vegetation across the landscape, trees, and bushes in this zone should be limited to small clusters of a few apiece.
~Zone 3 | The Extended Zone: 30 Feet – 100 Feet
~This zone includes the part of your property from 30-100 feet, even out to 200 feet for larger plots. The purpose here is not to put out fires but to divert them and keep them smaller and on the ground. This zone may not apply to everyone. Most suburban neighborhoods and especially apartments will likely not have 100 feet of extra land surrounding their home. However, make sure to manage even the farthest portions of whatever land you to own.
- Remove large amounts of ground litter/debris.
- Get rid of any dead plant or fallen tree branches.
- Remove any plants around storage sheds or other facilities in this area.
- Trees 30 to 60 feet away from the house should have at least 12 feet between canopy tops.
- Trees 60 to 100 feet away should have at least 6 feet between canopy tops.
Plan Access Ways for Emergency Responders
Make sure street names and house numbers are prominently displayed as to be visible for firefighters so they can spot your home easily. Driveways and access roads should be broad enough and have enough vertical clearance to allow fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to drive right up to your property. The key is to make sure these pathways always remain clear in case of an emergency.
Creating a defensible space around your home improves firefighters' capacity to defend your home from wildfires. Remember that they are only trained to guard structures when it is safe to do so.
If firefighters cannot protect your property during a wildfire, having your HIZ’s prepared and secure enhances the likelihood that your home will survive. There are no guarantees in life, but it always pays to be proactive and strive for the best possible outcome.
Keep Fire Extinguishing Supplies Handy
Keeping one or more fire extinguishers and extinguishing items in strategic positions throughout your home is a crucial fire safety practice.
Knowing how and when to use your fire extinguishers is imperative in a fire emergency, where every second counts. A fire that has burned for one minute will likely have tripled in size within that time.
~Multiple Spigots and Hoses (if applicable)
~Fires fueled by non-conductive materials such as paper, rubber, wood, etc. are normally easily vanquished with good ‘ol tap water. However, you cannot use water hoses to fight electrical fires because you risk electrocution. Other forms of fire protection equipment, such as C02 fire extinguishers, are developed to cope with fires caused by electrical issues or grease and oil.
~A plastic bucket can be a very useful tool. They can be used to extinguish fires by filling them with sand or water, then dumping them over or throwing them at the flames. Having multiple buckets can allow for an assembly line of people to help put out the fire quickly.
~Both plastic and metal fire buckets are available. Extreme heat from a wildfire can cause plastic buckets to warp and melt. That same heat can make metal buckets hot to handle, but a pair of garden gloves or oven mitts can be used to help mitigate that risk.
~Most structures have a range of hand-held firefighting equipment. A fire extinguisher is intended to assist in the containment of small flames before they spread and become too large to manage. Portable fire extinguishers are also available with various extinguishing agents to assist you in fighting the small fires that may sprout up because of embers from the wildfire.
~The substances within fire extinguishers varies:
- Dry Powder
- Wet Chemicals
~Indoor sprinkler systems are among the oldest and most dependable techniques for automatically detecting and controlling fires. They are primarily meant to protect property, but they can play a role in life safety if constructed and used with other fire safety precautions.
~Lawn sprinklers can also be of assistance during a wildfire. Triggering your outdoor sprinkler to start can help distinguish any embers that fly onto the grass. The wet grass may also help slow down the movement of the flames if they are approaching your property line.
~Turning off the Power
~In extreme situations, public safety power outages (PSPs) have been called for to keep fires from spreading and causing additional problems in towns affected by wildfires. However, it is wise to do this in your home once you notice wildfires, even before the authorities respond.
Communicate with Your Neighbors
Talking with your neighbors can be beneficial, whether you live on multiple-acres or in a suburban neighborhood. If your live in a highly-populated area your home is only as safe as your neighbors. Working to identify and mitigate hazards as a group before forest fires strike can mean the difference between saving your property or watching it burn.
In places like California, you could live in a WUI (wildland urban interface) area in between undeveloped natural land and on the cusp of the developed land. This includes areas like in the mountains. These places are especially dangerous as they are more natural, meaning more timber and brush to burn.
~Plan for Community Wildfire Protection (CWPP)
~A CWPP assists communities in identifying their priorities for the WUI's protection of life, property, and essential infrastructure. A CWPP may cover wildfire response, hazard mitigation, community preparedness, and structural safety. Forests and Rangelands is an active, cooperative effort of the United States Department of the Interior (DOI), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and their land management agencies and offers guides on preparing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
~Firewise America is a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) initiative provides homeowners and residents with the ability to improve the ignition resistance of their homes and communities from forest fires. More than 1,500 Firewise USA locations in 42 states are currently taking action and ownership by preparing and safeguarding their homes from wildfire.
~Day of Community Preparedness for Wildfires
~The NFPA organized a national ‘Prep Day’ to enhance community awareness of wildfire risk, provide information and knowledge, and assist homeowners and residents in improving the survival of their houses and neighborhoods. The NFPA has designated the 1st Saturday in May as national ‘Wildfire Community Preparedness’ Day.
~Focused Collaboration with Your Immediate Neighbors
~While your area may offer all kinds of help to get things started, good old fashion neighborly conversation can work wonders. If you notice a tree overhanging or leaves piling up on their roofs, a friendly reminder to remove the excess branches or sweep of their roof could save both of your houses. In most survival scenarios you want to keep how prepared you are a secret so you don't become a target. However, when it comes to protecting your property, lean on your neighbors to make sure all of your properties have the best chance of survival.
Most wildfires begin small, but if the weather allows it to grow and spread, they can cause significant damage and endanger the lives of anyone in their path. Knowing how to act swiftly to minimize the dangers posed by forest fires plays a key part in protecting your property and your life. The ultimate goal is that you, your family, and your properties are safe at the end of the day. Take these active and passive steps today before it becomes too late.