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Protecting Your Home from Wildfires: Three Lines of Defense

For California homeowners, wildfires can be the single greatest threat to the safety of your home and family. In 2019 alone, an estimated 7,860 of these fires devastated the Californian landscape. 259,823 acres of land were set ablaze, resulting in the destruction or damage of 732 structures. Worst of all, three lives were confirmed lost as a result of these fires.

Given the terrifying suddenness with which these natural phenomena can break out and travel across the countryside, it can sometimes feel like you’re at the mercy of the elements. While there’s never a guarantee that a fire won’t reach your neighborhood, you have the power to protect both your home and loved ones using current best-practices in fire safety.

The NFPA and other organizations offer helpful regulations and guidance on fire protection for structures of all kinds. This article presents rules and tips most pertinent to homeowners by compiling it into three categories: The defensible space around your home, the exterior, and the interior.

In the event that wildfire does threaten your home, implementing these tools and strategies can provide a key advantage in the safety of your home.

Optimizing Your Defensible Space

The ‘defensible space’ is the area surrounding your home, which should be designed to perform two key roles. First, it should slow the advance of an oncoming blaze, hopefully routing flames and embers around your home as it passes through. Second, it needs to provide time for firefighters to reach your location and allow them to safely combat the fire.

In the state of California, a 100-foot perimeter of defensible space is required for fire safety. Think of everything in this area in terms of fuel for a potential wildfire. Ask Yourself: What would catch fire the quickest? What would take the longest for a fire to burn through? A strategically landscaped space with minimal fuel can be the difference between a protected structure and a vulnerable one.

During fire season, keep a 30-foot perimeter area as a “no fuel zone” if you’re able. This means moving all firewood and propane storage tanks at least 30 feet from your home and keeping vegetation to a minimum. Stone or gravel mulch is highly preferable to organic mulch, and you should ensure that your driveway always provides a safe, direct avenue for firefighters to reach your home.

The vegetation in your defensible space should be carefully maintained. Keep all plants well-watered and pruned. Dispose of dead plants, lawn trimmings and other organic debris as quickly as possible. It might seem like a good idea to remove plant life from your perimeter altogether, but well-kept vegetation provides a valuable barrier between a wildfire and your home. Consider not just whether or not something will catch fire, but how long it takes to burn through and the path it leads the fire down. A home surrounded solely by dirt and grass offers a straight pathway for fire, heat, and embers to reach the structure.

Reinforcing Your Exterior

No matter how effective your defensible space is, you should always assume that the exterior of your home will need to ward off a wildfire. The flames themselves are only occasionally responsible for starting a house fire. Most often, airborne embers are to blame. If you can protect your home from embers, you’ve won a key battle in the fight for fire safety.

One addition you can consider investing in is your roof because a flammable roof is among the largest threats to your home’s safety in the event of a wildfire. Asphalt, metal, and stone shingles will all decrease the risk of your roof igniting, as will keeping your gutters free of debris. As an added precaution, a sprinkler system on your roof can provide an additional advantage.

Embers are also notorious for finding their way into structures through exterior vents. Consider installing ember-resistant vents, and be sure to keep all openings covered with a non-combustible screening.

Unfortunately, embers aren’t the only threat. Radiant heat, the energy given off by the fire itself, can travel dozens of feet and ignite flammable materials around your home. Windows are especially vulnerable—not to catching fire, but to cracking or bursting. Of course, this makes it much easier for embers to enter your home. So, to keep your windows secure, be sure to install tempered or double-paned glass.

Lastly you should consider the material of your siding – this is the material of the home itself. Siding that’s generally considered fire-safe includes adobe, brick, concrete, metal, and stucco. Keep in mind that wildfire travels fast, and a structure that can withstand even a few minutes of assault from heat and embers is far more likely to survive.

Prepare for the Worst – Assessing the Interior

Sometimes, even if you’ve done everything right, you simply can’t stop a wildfire from reaching your home. In these cases, it’s best to be prepared.

In addition to installing smoke alarms throughout your home, be sure to test them every month. Also ensure that you and your loved ones have a detailed fire escape plan. Practicing this plan every so often can help commit it to muscle memory, especially if you have small children.

While you should make it out of a burning structure as quickly as possible and never re-enter one for any reason, we all have certain things we don’t want to lose in the event of a housefire. Create a prioritized list of the most important valuables in your home, including infants and pets. It may be difficult, but you should think realistically about how many of these items you could rescue in just a few seconds and create a plan to do so.

During fire season, keep these items near one another. Keep personal files together and consider backing up important documents on a portable drive. If you have a baby in the house, it’s more important than ever to be sure they’re sleeping near an adult’s room.

Of course, there will always be items you simply don’t have time to grab. For valuables that don’t quite make your priority list, a fire-proof safe can help your peace of mind.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be well-equipped should a wildfire threaten your areas. Of course, protecting your home means protecting your neighborhood, as one house fire can easily spread to another. Be sure to talk with your neighbors and family members regularly about fire safety and remember, we’re all in this together.

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