Improving Your Odds in Wildfires

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Photo by Pixabay/skeeze
Every year, wildfire destroys thousands of homes, and burns millions of acres.

Surviving Wildfire (PixyJack Press, 2012) by Linda Mastersonis a complete guide to preparing yourself and your family to survive wildfires. From what to look for when buying property to evacuation plans, Masterson helps families ensure their safety when this natural disaster strikes. The following excerpt is a guide to improving your odds of survival when at home.

The potential for catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires grows every year. Fire risk in the WUI and what we can do as a nation to reduce it has of late become a subject of intense scrutiny and study. The amount of information out there is overwhelming. But a couple of simple facts stand out in stark relief. Upwards of 65 percent of all homes now built in the WUI nationwide are in high-fire hazard areas.

A recent study by Headwaters Economics shows that in 11 fire-prone Western states, only about 14 percent of the land in the WUI has actually been developed, leaving 86 percent available for future development. And so the potential for catastrophic fires that gobble up homes is going to continue to grow.

In high fire-hazard areas, it’s not a question of “if” wildfires will occur, but a question of “when.” And of what people can do to live more safely in a fire-prone environment.

Before You Buy Property

We moved to Colorado from a suburb of Chicago with neighbors so close we could have passed coffeecake back and forth. We’d been escaping to the wilds for years. So when we went shopping for property, we insisted on plenty of trees for privacy and great views. That’s how we ended up on top of a ridge with panoramic views of overgrown forest in all directions—which we now realize was one of the most wildfire-susceptible places we could have built.

So if you’re shopping for property, call the State Forest Service and ask about both fire history and risk for the future. Talk to the county building department and find out if they do wildfire safety inspections. Where’s the nearest fire station? Water supply? A county plat map will show you the road systems and other features. Is there more than one way in and out of the area? You can also check out the view from Google Earth.

If you’re considering property that’s part of a homeowners association (HOA), read their covenants before you make an offer. Some HOAs have very strict landscaping regulations and may not permit you to cut down trees even to create defensible space. Some covenants may mandate building materials (i.e. wood siding, shake roofs) that put your house at higher wildfire risk.

Talk to your insurance agent and find out what type of coverage is available, and get a ballpark estimate of what good coverage will cost. And don’t let your heart rule your head. Before you make an offer, identify at least one potential building site you love that offers maximum protection from wildfire.

Before You Build

It’s more cost effective and much easier to site, design and build your home with fire protection in mind than it is to retrofit. So if you’re at the dreaming and doodling stage, add “Fire Safety” to your list of must-haves. This is also a good time to ask your insurance agent for a list of building features that can help reduce your premiums; things like a non-combustible or fire-resistant roof and exterior building materials can save you money year after year as well as protect your home. A few things to consider when siting your home:

Avoid Slopes. Build on the most level part of your land. Unlike humans, fire loves to run uphill, and spreads much more rapidly on even minor slopes. The steeper the slope, the faster it runs.

Avoid Edges. A one-story house needs to be at least 30 feet back from any drop off or cliff (unless it’s a drop off into a large body of water at the bottom of a rocky cliff). If your home is more than one-story, double your setback. Hate the idea of giving up your fabulous view? Consider a stone patio; you’ll be improving your defensibility and giving yourself a great place to soak up the scenery that you won’t have to mow, weed or water.

Consider Your Exposure. South and southwest exposures are generally hotter and drier, and prone to having more fires. Slopes that face south are at their hottest and driest in the afternoon, the time that most wildfires make their most aggressive runs.

Know Your Prevailing Winds. A wind-driven fire can travel miles in minutes. If the prevailing winds during your normal active fire season are from the west, you’ll want as big a firebreak as possible on the west side of your home.

Create a site plan. Plot out where your house will go, and then add in everything that will be attached to it, such as decks and garages. Anything directly attached to your house should be treated as part of it when you’re planning defensible space. Anything flammable (such as a barn or outbuilding) situated more than 100 feet away from the house will need its own defensible space. Use colored rope to lay out your dream home; then pick another color to outline at least 100 feet of defensible space all around your home site. Careful planning now can help keep you from having to cut down your favorite tree before you can move in.

Trees. If you have trees you want to leave standing close to your home, incorporate them into the footprint, and extend your defensible space out from there. Just be sure there are no branches overhanging your roof; they can offer fire a fast path to your home.

Propane tanks and woodpiles need to be at least 30 feet away from the house. Woodpiles should be downwind and uphill if the land is not level, so that if the woodpile catches on fire, the firebrands travel away from your house. Thinking about this while you’re building will help you avoid having to install your propane tank directly in your favorite view. If you own your propane tank, you can always bury it in the ground.

Driveway. Your driveway should be wide enough to allow for the passage of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. A canopy of trees is romantic and appealing, but trees hanging down over your driveway are a fire hazard and can impede the progress of emergency vehicles; trim tree branches 15 feet up from the ground.

Turnarounds. A circular driveway or parking pad large enough for big vehicles to easily turn around will make your home much more defendable. Firefighters are trained not to enter places where they could be trapped, so having a clear escape route is imperative. In many situations, firefighters cannot even attempt to defend your home if there is no safe way to turn around and exit.

Access roads in the WUI are often privately maintained; our association’s one-lane winding road had 700-foot drop-offs in some places, and only a few turnouts to allow for two-way traffic. During our fire we were almost trapped trying to get out by a well-meaning neighbor trying to bring in a horse trailer to help evacuate a friend’s horses. That’s why guidelines recommend at least a 10-foot clearance on either side of the road, and frequent pullouts and turnouts if the road can’t be wide enough for two-way traffic.

Firewise Building

You know how you can never figure out how moths and flies and mice get into your house? Fire slithers in the same way. Fire will exploit any crack, crevice or opening, no matter how small. Its mission in life is to feed itself and grow. You can take a virtual tour of a Firewise home at www.firewise.org (search under Information and Resources).

Use these following tips as a guide when designing a new home. If you’re building your own home, take your plans to a fire expert or a local architect for review and input. It might cost a few extra bucks now, but designing with fire in mind will greatly improve the odds your home will be one of the “lucky” ones.

Building Codes. If you are working with an architect or designer, they should be familiar with local building codes, which may dictate everything from acceptable materials to soffit design. If you are serving as your own designer, you’ll want to contact the building department and get a copy. Many areas in the WUI now have strict building codes designed to make sure structures are as defensible as possible. California building codes passed in 2008 dictate the usage of fire-smart building materials. Local building codes rule; some counties and municipalities have extensive lists of materials that meet local codes on their websites.

Building Materials. Use fire-resistant and non-combustible materials wherever you can. Fire-resistant means that it takes longer for the material to catch on fire, and it burns with less intensity. Non-combustible refers to materials like stone, brick and stucco that don’t ignite. Vinyl siding doesn’t burn, but it does melt and when it does, it exposes all the framing to flames. And remember, no one has ever failed to pass a building inspection for using materials that exceed code requirements. You can’t completely fire-proof your home, but you can make it much more fire resistant.

Log Homes. Many people dream, as we once did, of building a log home in the woods. You don’t have to abandon your dreams. Full logs are remarkably fire resistant, just one class below concrete and stone. A properly built log home is much more fire resistant than the typical frame house, which is the most combustible type of structure you can build. Today you can even buy concrete logs, which deliver a realistic log look with the protection of stone.

Roof. The roof is the most vulnerable part of your home. Metal, Class A asphalt shingles, slate, clay or terra-cotta tile, cement and concrete products are all good fire-resistant choices Shake shingle roofs burn easily, not only because they are wood, but because of all the exposed edges. Even worse, shake shingles turn into missiles in a wind-driven firestorm, and start spot fires wherever they land. In many wildland places traditional shake shingle roofs are now illegal.

Multi-faceted roofs are all the design rage, but when it comes to fire safety, simple is better. A roof design with no valleys is best, because heat can pool in any type of depression, creating eddies and hot spots that can eventually start the roof on fire.

Windows. Who doesn’t want a wall of windows to show off all those fabulous views, or just to watch the wildlife and enjoy being surrounded by Mother Nature? Unfortunately the bigger the windows, the more vulnerable they are to breaking in the intense heat from a fire and letting in flames. Smaller windows hold up better in their frames. Choose double- or triple-paned windows or tempered glass. Avoid plastic skylights; they can easily melt and let in a firestorm.

Doors. Use solid-core exterior doors no less than 1 3/4-inch thick, with good weather stripping. Put in a self-closing door with a tight seal between the house and the garage. It’s usually tougher to completely seal garage doors, so make sure if something in the garage catches fire, you can keep flames from getting into the house.

Escape Routes. Experts recommend that every room have at least two escape routes (for example one window and one door, or two windows.) Plus you should have at least two solid ground-level doors to the outside. Be sure you also have a safe way to get to your vehicles.

Shutters. Non-flammable shutters on windows and skylights can help keep fire on the outside from getting in.

Vents & Eaves. Vents are very vulnerable to flying embers. Box in eaves, fascias, soffits and vents or enclose them with 1/8-inch metal mesh. Don’t use plastic or fiberglass; both will melt and burn. Attic vents in eaves and cornices also need to be baffled or otherwise protected.

Chimneys. Chimneys need to be equipped with spark arresters and screens that prevent embers from dropping into your home (and will also keep sparks from the chimney from getting out…and birds from flying in).

Decks, Porches and Outdoor Living Spaces. Our decks and patios combined had almost as many square feet as our house. Your decks, porches, balconies and attached garage should be treated as if they are part of your house; calculate defensible space from their outer boundaries.

Decks present special hazards in wildfires; they can heat from underneath and eventually ignite from radiant or convective heat, and flying embers can pile up on the top surface of a deck, creating a sort of fire sandwich. Redwood and cedar decks look great and stand up to moisture, bugs and rot, but they will burn, as will lumber treated to be fire-resistant. Composition decks are harder to catch on fire, but once they get going they burn like a really big candle. LEED-certified fireproof decking is now available from Lifetime Lumber, and undoubtedly other sources. Deck supports should be treated and coated; they are usually slower to catch on fire than the deck itself because they are thicker. Wooden decks should be made of material that is at least three inches thick.

Don’t plan on storing anything that can burn under your deck, such as firewood, deck furniture, tarps, recycling, wooden canoes, etc. Metal screening of 1/8-inch or smaller between the outside bottom edge of the deck and the ground will keep embers from blowing under your deck, and also keep out debris, leaves, twigs and critters.

Stone sometimes explodes or pulverizes, but it doesn’t readily burn. Cladding your support posts and your foundation in stonework helps provide a barrier for ground-burning fires. If the posts go right into the ground, add an area of gravel or stone all the way around. Stone patios and gravel mulch can add to your defensibility

Water Sources and Storage. Wildland fire experts advise that people living in areas without fire hydrants or an easily accessible nearby year-round water source like a reservoir or lake have a community water storage tank. If that’s not possible or practical, allow for at least a 2,500 gallon storage tank on site.

Retrofitting Your Home

What if you already own a home that you now realize has some fire-vulnerable design and construction features that are impossible or cost prohibitive to change? There are still many steps you can take to improve your ability to withstand a wildfire. Doing anything is better than doing nothing.

Since the roof is the most vulnerable part of a home or outbuilding, having a fire-resistant one (Class A) should be a high priority. Replacing a roof is expensive, but many insurance companies offer substantial discounts for hazard-resistant roofs, so check with them first to get a list of brands and types that qualify.

Replacing single-paned windows with double-paned or tempered glass will give your home an extra layer of protection and save energy as well. Screens should have metal frames as well as metal—not plastic—mesh.

To keep firebrands out, use 1/8-inch metal mesh to screen under decks, enclose foundations, and enclose eaves and vents.

Screen your chimney opening and install a spark arrester that meets National Fire Protection Association Standard 211.

Check for places where combustible materials meet each other, providing a pathway for fire, such as a wooden fence attached to wooden stairs leading to a wooden deck, and separate them with a span of non-flammable material, if you can.

Store boats, campers, lawnmowers and recreational vehicles that contain gasoline in a building or well away from your home.

For extra safety, consider metal or all-weather (the latest designer name for fancy faux woods and wickers) outdoor furniture. It may not survive (ours didn’t), but it won’t add any fuel to the fire. Door mats, furniture cushions and covers, planters and window boxes all provide good places for embers to smolder. Rubber mats, flame-retardant furniture covers and metal, cement or pottery planters are a better choice.

Ongoing Maintenance

• Regularly clean your roof and gutters; don’t allow debris to pile up anywhere. Repair any breaks between tiles where debris could hide.

• Patrol your defensible space and remove downed tree branches, trash and debris that could ignite.

• Clean chimneys at least once a year if you use your fireplace regularly; more often if you heat with wood or use your fireplace a lot.

• Don’t pile firewood on or under your deck or up against your house. Store firewood down from prevailing winds and a minimum of 30 feet away from your house or any outbuildings.

• Keep your grass and weeds trimmed. Dispose of cuttings and debris before they have a chance to turn into tinder.

• Thin trees and brush; remove branches overhanging chimney and roof.

• Keep plants and bushes well-watered. Remove any dead plant materials immediately. Natural mulches like wood chips and bark turn into kindling when they are dry; gravel or rock mulch is a better insulator for plants and provides a fire break instead of a source of fuel. And rock mulch never blows away.

• Clear vegetation around cisterns, propane tanks and fire hydrants.

• Make sure address signs are clearly visible from the access road.

Handling the Little Unexpected Emergencies

You can’t fight a raging wildfire. But everyone who lives in the WUI should be prepared to handle life’s unexpected little emergencies.

When we first moved in our fire pit was off our back deck; our woodpile was perhaps 25 feet downhill under a big ponderosa pine. One night we had a fire in the fire pit; we were sure it was out when we went to bed. The next morning my husband Cory went to town to run some errands. I was still in my polar fleece robe in my office when I looked out the window and saw flames shooting up into a big tree. I ran outside in my slippers and grabbed the water bucket we kept nearby, which had all the effect of throwing a teacup of water on a bonfire. Somehow I had the presence of mind to call my nearest neighbor and 911; then I ran back and forth with buckets of water. My neighbor and her kids joined my bucket brigade, and together we kept the fire from spreading until the volunteer fire department showed up to put it out for real. The heat singed off one of my eyebrows, and the sleeves of my robe melted to my arms.

If I had gone to town, our house would have probably burned down that day. We did so many things wrong it’s hard to know where to start. Our woodpile should have been uphill and upwind and at least 30 feet away from the house. Our fire should have been stone cold, stick-your-hand-in-it out before we went to bed; having a heavy lid to cover the pit would have been even better. I should have called 911 before I ran outside. And a polyester robe did not make for good fire-fighting gear. We should have had a long hose hooked up, and shovels and rakes handy. We learned a lot that day. When a lightning strike started a small fire near our home a couple of years later, we were much better prepared.

Necessities of Life in the WUI

Smoke Alarms. Install a smoke alarm on each level of your home, especially near bedrooms. While there are still a few states that do not mandate smoke alarms, they do save lives, so install them even if you don’t have to. Use long-life batteries, and change them at least once a year. Test alarms monthly. You’ll probably smell, hear and see a wildfire long before your smoke alarms go off, but they’ll be able to warn you if a fire starts in or around your house.

Fire Extinguishers. Keep a fire extinguisher on every level and in the garage. Make sure everyone knows where they are, and how to use them. It’s not as easy as it looks in the movies.

Hand Tools. Assemble rakes, shovels, buckets, and a handsaw or chainsaw, and keep them together in one place. Wildland firefighters use a handy tool called a Pulaski that’s part axe and part adze; it can both dig and chop. Firefighters use their Pulaskis to construct fire line, but it’s also a handy tool for homeowners who have to dig holes in hard-packed soil or clay or areas full of roots and stones. And it won’t run out of gas until you do.

Hoses, Buckets and Ladders. Have a hose hooked up and ready to use by all of your outdoor faucets. It’s good to have freeze-proof exterior water outlets on at least two sides of your home. Ladders and buckets are just necessities of life in the WUI.

Can Responders Find and Reach You?

Emergency services can’t save you if they can’t find you or reach you. Mark your address in a way that’s easily identifiable from the main access road, and again on your home. Fancy script numbers carved into a rock may look great, but they do no good if no one can read them. This is one area where it’s worth sacrificing aesthetics for real-world performance. Put up big house numbers that can be read from a distance and are reflective, lit by solar-powered lights or glow in the dark. Don’t make firefighters sacrifice precious time trying to find your home, or even worse, drive by without realizing anyone is there.

Locked gates can present a host of problems that can delay emergency responders. A simple chain lock or padlock can easily be removed, but heavy duty electronic gates and walls and metal fences can keep out more than trespassers. If your property access is gated or you live in a gated community, it’s imperative that you give your gate access code to emergency dispatch and the local fire department, and notify them when you change it.

There are also a wide range of entry options for providing emergency responders with quick access, from special keyed locks to audio activation that recognizes the specific siren frequency of ambulances and fire trucks and prompts the gate to open. There are also radio-controlled options that allow responders who arrive in personal vehicles to gain access. Many counties are now passing standards requiring new developments to install gates with fail-safes that allow emergency service officials to gain entry without an access code.


Reprinted with permission fromSurviving Wildfire (2012), by Linda Masterson and published by PixyJack Press.