More and more Americans are spending time in remote areas and building their homes in wildland settings, rural areas or remote mountain sites. Such homeowners enjoy the beauty of the environment yet face the very real danger of wildfire.
But wildfires don’t have to result in tragedy if homeowners follow some basic safety tips.
Plan ahead and survive
- Families and residents should have a plan for wildfire emergencies that threaten homes, including where to go when escaping a fire and what to bring with you.
- Get together with your family and make a list that includes who is responsible for bringing which family pets with them.
- Learn about the history of wildfire in your area. Be aware of recent weather. A long period without rain increases the risk of wildfire.
- Consider having a professional inspect your property and offer recommendations for reducing the wildfire risk. Determine your community’s ability to respond to wildfire. Are roads leading to your property clearly marked? Are the roads wide enough to allow firefighting equipment to get through? Is your house number visible from the roadside?
Learn, teach safe fire practices
- Build fires away from nearby trees or bushes.
- Always have a way to extinguish the fire quickly and completely.
- Install smoke detectors on every level of your home and near sleeping areas.
- Never leave a fire — even a cigarette — burning unattended.
- Avoid open burning completely, and especially during dry season.
Always be ready for an emergency evacuation
- Evacuation may be the only way to protect your family in a wildfire. Know where to go and what to bring with you. You should plan several escape routes in case roads are blocked by a wildfire.
Take steps to protect your home
The key to protecting a home from wildfires is to create a survivable and defensible space. That’s number one. It’s going to increase your chance of surviving a wildfire. Keep your survivable and defensible space "lean, clean and green.” Vegetation should be sparse and free of dead branches and debris. Trees should be “limbed” up well off the ground and grass and other plants should be well-watered.
- All vegetation is fuel for a wildfire, though some trees and shrubs are more flammable than others. To reduce the risk, you will need to modify or eliminate brush, trees and other vegetation near your home. The greater the distance is between your home and the vegetation, the greater the protection.
You’ll want a 30-foot safety zone around the house.
- Keep the volume of vegetation in this zone to a minimum. If you live on a hill, extend the zone on the downhill side. Fire spreads rapidly uphill. The steeper the slope, the more open space you will need to protect your home. Swimming pools and patios can be a safety zone and stone walls can act as heat shields and deflect flames. In this zone, you should also do the following:
- Remove vines from the walls of the house.
- Move shrubs and other landscaping away from the sides of the house.
- Prune branches and shrubs within 15 feet of chimneys and stove pipes.
- Remove tree limbs within 15 feet of the ground.
- Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns.
- Replace highly flammable vegetation such as pine, eucalyptus, junipers and fir trees with lower growing, less flammable species. Check with your local fire department or garden store for suggestions.
- Replace vegetation that has living or dead branches from the ground-level up (these act as ladder fuels for the approaching fire).
- Cut the lawn often, keeping the grass at a maximum of 2 inches. Watch grass and other vegetation near the driveway, a source of ignition from automobile exhaust systems.
- Clear the area of leaves, brush, evergreen cones, dead limbs and fallen trees.
You’ll also want to create a second zone at least 100 feet around the house.
- In this zone, reduce or replace as much of the most flammable vegetation as possible. If you live on a hill, you may need to extend the zone for several hundred feet to provide the desired level of safety.
- Install electrical lines underground, if possible.
- Ask the power company to clear branches from power lines.
- Avoid using bark and wood chip mulch.
- Stack firewood 100 feet away and uphill from any structure.
- Store combustible or flammable materials in approved safety containers and keep them away from the house.
- Keep the gas grill and propane tank at a distance from any structure. Clear an area 15 feet around the grill. Place a 1/4-inch mesh screen over the grill. Always use the grill cautiously but refrain from using it during high-risk times.
Control debris, combustibles
- Any porch, balcony or overhang with exposed space underneath is fuel for an approaching fire. Overhangs ignite easily by flying embers and by the heat and fire that get trapped underneath.
- If vegetation is allowed to grow underneath or if the space is used for storage, the hazard is increased significantly.
- Clear leaves, trash and other combustible materials away from underneath sun decks and porches. Enclose wooden stilts with non-combustible material such as concrete, brick, rock, stucco or metal. Use non-combustible patio furniture and covers.
- Like porches and balconies, eaves trap the heat rising along the exterior siding. Enclose all eaves to reduce the hazard.
- Chimneys create a hazard when embers escape through the top. To prevent this, install spark arrestors on chimneys, stovepipes and vents for fuel-burning heaters. If you’re building a chimney, make sure the top of the chimney is at least two feet higher than any obstruction within 10 feet of the chimney.
Other safety measures
- Choose residential locations wisely; canyon and slope locations increase the risk of exposure to wildland fires.
- Use fire-resistant materials when building, renovating, or retrofitting structures.
- Use non-combustible materials for the roof.
- The roof is especially vulnerable in a wildfire. Embers and flaming debris can travel great distances, land on your roof and start a new fire. Avoid flammable roofing materials such as wood, shake and shingle. Materials that are more fire resistant include single ply membranes, fiberglass shingles, slate, metal, clay and concrete tile. Clear gutters of leaves and debris.
If you are trapped at home
- As the fire front approaches, stay inside the house. In most cases, the fire will pass before your house burns down.
If you are caught by a wildfire in the open
- The rule of thumb is to find a spot where there is less fuel for the fire, get low and cover yourself until the fire passes. Carry a first aid kit and have an emergency plan for outdoor activities. Wildfire travels faster uphill than it does down, so don’t try to outrun it. If possible, find a way to lower ground that is unaffected or already burned.