How to Stay Safe During Wildfire Season
In October of 2017, California saw some of its most destructive wildfires. The infernos raged through wine country and destroyed more than 10,000 homes. It may seem that a wildfire is an unstoppable force of nature, and that anything in its path is destined for incineration, but there are ways property owners can help increase the chances of their property surviving some wildfires.
Know Your Risk
Most wildfires are caused by people which makes them difficult to predict. Although we can't foresee who will burn debris or leave a campfire unattended for example, we can identify where and when a fire is more likely to spread.
A total of 38 states have some level of wildfire risk. Of those, 13 western states are considered high-risk areas, including California, Colorado and Texas. If weather conditions are unusually dry, even lower-risk areas can suffer severe damage.
The National Weather Service issues a "Red Flag Warning" for days with the highest risk of wildfires. Typically, this warning is issued a few days per year when conditions are excessively hot, dry, and windy.
Prepare Your Home
Many wildfires spread when embers float through the air and travel from tree to tree. The easiest way to combat embers is to clear leaves, needles or other debris from your home. Clean out the gutters. Be sure to clear debris from the top of decks and below them, including leaves, kindling and remove propane tanks. Vines, shrubs and vegetation should be removed from the side of houses and branches should be clipped back within 15 feet of chimneys.1
"Minimizing the amount of debris around your home will lessen the chance a fire will spread to your house," notes Danny Lipford, home improvement expert and host of the "Today's Homeowner" television and radio shows.
In addition to maintaining your yard, the right landscaping can further reduce your risk. Creating a defensible space around your home is commonly recommended. These spaces often keep plants a certain distance away from your home and other structures. In addition, at least 10 feet should be cleared between the branches of different trees. This will help prevent embers from spreading from tree to tree. If you have a lawn, keep it well-watered and avoid planting grasses against wood siding.
Fire spreads to buildings through three methods. The first is through radiation. Wildfires radiate heat, which can ignite certain materials if they are close enough. The second method is through convection. This involves flames coming into direct contact with buildings. The last method is firebrands. Wind can blow burning materials into buildings, causing them to catch fire. Certain building materials and design features can increase the risk of igniting during a wildfire while others are more fire resistant. Fire resistant materials and construction techniques can be applied to the roof, exterior walls, exterior windows, glass doors, skylights, attic, foundation vents and building attachments to reduce the likelihood of catching fire.
"Many [homeowners] love the look of cedar shake shingles, but they're terrible in the case of a fire. If dry embers land on the roof and it's made of wood, it's going to burn," warns Lipford. He recommends replacing your wooden shingles with a realistic-looking synthetic that simulates the look of wood.
Similar rules apply for siding. In lieu of wood, Lipford suggests fiber cement siding. "It doesn't burn. You can use it for window trim, door trim, your soffits, and other exterior components of your house," explains Lipford. "It looks good and it doesn't cost more than comparable materials."
Additional safeguards include installing and regularly inspecting noncombustible wire mesh screens over attic vents and choosing fire-resistant materials, such as wool or stone wool, when replacing your home’s insulation.
Have an Emergency Plan
Wildfires spread quickly and provide little warning time. Having a fire safety plan in place long before you receive a centralized warning can maximize the time you have to take action. Officials often recommend, signing up for text message weather service alerts in your area. These alerts provide advance warning. Although smart smoke detectors can alert you if you’re away from home, smoke detectors do not provide much protection from wildfire’s spreading. It’s important not to rely solely on them for wildfire safety.
Regularly-scheduled fire safety drills are effective, not only at school, but at home, too. Know your children’s school evacuation plan, designate an outdoor family meeting spot, and plan your evacuation routes to include alternate directions in case you encounter impassable roads. Maintain a printed list of family phone numbers, including that of an out-of-town family member who can serve as a central point of contact, in case cell phones or land lines are lost or destroyed.
As part of your emergency preparation, keep a list of your valuables and review your current homeowner's insurance policy to ensure you have the right coverage.
Begin prepping to leave your home as soon as warnings arise, even if you haven't been told to evacuate. "Assemble any necessities like required medication, a flashlight, and batteries and chargers," advises Lipford. "Know where your pets and children are. Make sure your car is pointed in the right direction." Make it easy to leave as soon as possible in case an evacuation notice is issued.
Children, teens and young adults should all be informed about wildfire dangers, safety and prevention. Dangers of wildfires include dangerous heat levels as well as increased carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and smoke levels. Be sure to go over escape routes in the school building, evacuation routes outside the building and safety tips like staying low to the ground to avoid smoke. Incendios are frequently caused by unattended campfires, fireworks, burning debris, engine sparks and compromised power lines. Teach children the common causes of wildfires and as many prevention points as possible so they are able to recognize trouble early and avoid and help prevent potential wildfires. Tell children what they can do if they do spot trouble. They should know to bring it to an adult’s attention or call 9-1-1. To learn more, visit The Hartford’s Junior Fire Marshal® program.
More About Wildfires
1 “How To Prepare For a Wildfire,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)