These last few years have been bad ones for fires in Northern California. In 2018, the Camp Fire destroyed most of the town of Paradise and left thousands of people homeless. In 2019, we have already had several wildfires throughout the North Bay Area and experienced massive precautionary power outages that may continue to happen for years to come.
Looking to the future, the fire risks are only going to get worse. Wildfire mitigation should be on the mind of every homeowner, renter, and business owner. Today, we’re looking at critical wildfire home protection steps you can take to reduce the risk of losing your home in a wildfire. If you’ve been putting off learning how to protect your home from wildfires, this article will get you started!
Prevention Is Effective!
If preparing your home for a wildfire sounds like a lot of work, you’re right: it usually is. But you can break the project up into chunks and work on it over time, as well as hire professionals to help you. Handling the work this way makes it manageable.
And it is time well-spent! For as terrifying and powerful as a firestorm can be, properly implemented wildfire mitigation practices can be highly effective. There are no guarantees in life, but if you remove combustible fuels, maintain your property, and shield your house, a fire is going to have a much harder time getting the foothold it needs to destroy your home.
Do You Live in the Wildland-Urban Interface?
When it comes to fire risk, the most dangerous places to live are in the “Wildland-Urban Interface,” which is the boundary between developed areas and wild areas. Developed areas don’t burn easily and have access to firefighting resources such as roads and water lines. Undeveloped areas are prone to catastrophic fires but don’t have people living in them. On the boundary between the two, however, many homes that are isolated from firefighting resources and surrounded by fire hazards.
Practicing effective wildfire mitigation techniques is smart no matter where you live, but it becomes especially critical if you live in a Wildland-Urban Interface area.
How to Protect Your Home From Wildfires: Defensible Space
To practice effective wildfire home protection, you first need to understand how wildfires operate. Wildfires spread best through smaller vegetation like grasses and weeds. In the dry season, these plants become kindling that can easily ignite when in contact with almost any source of heat. Once lit, they easily burst into flame and provide the heat necessary to ignite thicker materials like trees and houses. So, your first wildfire mitigation step is to control the presence of these fuels. This practice is called “maintaining a Defensible Space.”
Defensible Space is a widely-known but poorly understood concept in wildfire mitigation, and many homeowners don’t do it properly which leads to tragedy when a fire strikes.
Here are some best practices to create an effective Defensible Space:
- Plant fire-resistant vegetation. No plant is truly fireproof, but some are much more resistant than others.
- Avoid creating “fire ladders” where ground plants, shrub-height plants, and trees are all close together.
- Keep your plants and trees well-trimmed and remove any dead, dry, or sick parts when spotted.
- Water your plants properly. Well-hydrated plants are much more resistant to fire (Water doesn’t like to burn, after all!)
The most effective wildfire mitigation zone for creating Defensible Space is 16 to 58 feet from your house! There’s no need to go much farther than that, and it can actually make things worse if you do.
Don’t Turn Your Property Into a Barren Wasteland
Creating a “Defensible Space” for wildfire home protection does not mean “clear all vegetation.” In addition to harming the ecosystem and creating erosion and flooding risks, destroying all of the vegetation around your home actually makes the fire threat worse. For one thing, when you clear out all of the vegetation, weeds move in right away, creating an even greater fire risk than before.
Even if you do manage to keep your Defensible Space clear, with nothing to stop them, wildfire embers can pass quickly through towards your home. Successful wildfire mitigation means you want to have some vegetation in your Defensible Space to catch these embers and snuff them out before they reach your home.
How to Protect Your Home From Wildfires: Mitigating Embers
Embers are beautiful around the campfire, but in wildfires, they’re the germs that spread the disease. Embers float on the air and can destroy homes far away from an active fire. There are millions of embers in a fire and they go everywhere which means that if your home has any flammable weak spots the embers are going to exploit them.
The bad news is that most people’s homes are flammable. Here are some of the most common fire risks to your home, and the wildfire home protection steps you can take to address them:
- Dead leaves and needles on the roof or in your gutters will easily catch fire and spread throughout your house. These materials need to be cleared out regularly. In California, where the land is typically very dry in autumn, this is a crucial wildfire mitigation step. Since it is extremely difficult to keep these combustible fuels cleared out all the time, consider installing a Class A fire-rated roof or gutter guards to keep debris out of your gutters year-round.
- Unscreened vents (i.e., attic vents) are a big risk. Embers exploit these openings to get inside your home. Protect all vents with fine-mesh screens and repair any damaged screens when spotted.
- Trees and shrubs that are too close to a house can light it on fire. For effective wildfire home protection, keep all vegetation at a minimum within 15 feet of your house. All plants should be chosen for fire resistance and carefully spaced apart from other vegetation. Use rocks, stone, and pavement near your house to create a thick ring of fire resistance.
- Propane tanks will explode in a fire. If you have one near your house, it’s worth relocating farther away to a backyard shed or detached garage.
- Windows are entry pathways for fires. During a fire emergency, they should be completely shut. Double-pane windows are safer than single-pane as the interior pane will be shielded from the heat of the fire and will be less likely to shatter. Some homeowners have fireproof window covers or shutters that they deploy before evacuation.
- As you consider wildfire home protection, check all doors (including pet doors) to ensure the seals are tight. Repair any defects or openings.
- Wooden decks, fences, and siding are all fire hazards. Consider replacing flammable siding with non-flammable materials and consider replacing most of all of your wooden fencing with metal. For decks, wildfire mitigation best practices include keeping the decks in good shape and not storing flammable materials on, underneath, or next to the deck.
You should also consider installing an independent water system (including your own storage tank and pump) so that you can operate exterior sprinklers before and during a wildfire. Exterior sprinklers can spray a protective coating of water onto your house and, in some extraordinary cases, have been known to make the difference between a home being destroyed or not.
Talk With Your Neighbors
If your property line ends less than 50 feet from your house, then it isn’t enough to come up with your own wildfire mitigation plan. By getting your neighbors on the same page, you can seriously improve your overall wildfire home protection odds.
We hope this helps you better understand how to protect your home from wildfires. We recommend you check out “Protecting Your Home from Fire,” by the California Chaparral Institute, for more in-depth information and case studies.
We stand with our North Bay communities as they fight through this difficult time. If you need help with building a defensible space on your property, or if you have any wildfire mitigation questions, Northbay Maintenance is here to help. Please feel free to contact us at any time for more information.