Housing & Mortgage
Six Steps to Reduce Risk of Fire Engulfing Your Home
Avoid high-risk areas; building materials and landscaping are fire-prevention tools, too
Hotter, drier weather has produced a spate of destructive fires, but there are key steps homeowners can take to lessen the risks.
This includes understanding which communities are most threatened by wildfires before you buy a house, as well as making your home and yard more fire-resistant after you move in.
Even as the climate keeps warming, Americans continue to build and buy homes in fire-prone areas. The result has been an increase in deadly fires. Two of the worst fire years on record in terms of acreage burned have been since 2015.
Some 4.5 million properties are at high risk from forest fires, according to an analysis by risk assessment firm Verisk. That includes 2 million in California, 718,000 in Texas, and 371,000 in Colorado: https://www.verisk.com/insurance/campaigns/location-fireline-state-risk-report/
Last year was a comparatively mild year for fires. Even so, 4.7 million acres burned; the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, California, burned 78,000 acres and destroyed 374 buildings. In 2018, the Camp Fire in Butte County, California, killed 85 people and destroyed 18,800 structures while burning 153,000 acres. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire in Northern California killed 22 and destroyed 5,600 structures.
Here are six steps you can take to lower risks:
Ask your local fire department to drop by. In many areas, firefighters will visit your home and make recommendations and share local information you mightn’t find elsewhere.
Study fire-risk maps before you buy a home. There are places where fire problems are much more likely. The federal government has created a map that shows the wildfire risk for the entire U.S. You can zoom in on areas to learn the risks: https://www.firelab.org/sites/default/files/images/downloads/whp_2018_continuous_lettersize.jpg
Many states have produced their own fire-risk maps. California, which has the biggest fire problem, has maps for individual counties as well as a statewide map: https://osfm.fire.ca.gov/divisions/wildfire-planning-engineering/wildland-hazards-building-codes/fire-hazard-severity-zones-maps/
If you’re planning to live in an area with high fire risk, stay away from neighborhoods where houses sit cheek-by-jowl. One reason the town of Paradise, California, was so devastated by the Camp Fire in 2018 was that many homes were located close together, allowing fire to leap easily from one house to the next. Paradise is being rebuilt, and the state is insisting on “defensible space” around homes.
Using the federal fire-risk map, the Arizona Republic and USA Today news organizations examined small towns across 11 states and found more than 500 had higher fire risks than Paradise. You can search for towns here: https://www.azcentral.com/in-depth/news/local/arizona-wildfires/2019/07/22/wildfire-risks-more-than-500-spots-have-greater-hazard-than-paradise/1434502001/
Make your house as fireproof as possible. Clean roofs and gutters of leaves, debris and pine needles. Install screens and replace broken windows to protect embers from entering houses.
Keep flammable material such as woodpiles or mulch away from homes. Woodpiles should be located uphill of the house (fire tends to burn upward) so they don’t serve as igniters for your house.
Beware of wood shingle roofs and wooden decks. Nobody living in a fire zone should have wood shingles, particularly untreated ones. There have been fires where homes with wooden shingles were destroyed where nearby homes with other roofs survived. Wood decks are also problematic. As fires leap from home to home, the deck may ignite first and set the rest of the house on fire.
Let your yard be part of the defense. The 30 feet closest to the house should be a fuel break with driveway, walkways and patios. Grass in this area should be kept to a maximum height of four inches.
Beyond 30 feet, don’t try to eliminate fire. Instead, try to control it. Dispose of piles of litter or debris. Keep trees spaced and trimmed so that fire can’t leap from the crown of one to the next.
Work with neighbors. Your house can be in perfect shape, but if your neighbor’s catches on fire, you have a problem. Many homes destroyed by forest fires are actually ignited by neighboring structures.
Let neighbors know you’re thinning trees on your property to lessen fire risk. If you have an older neighbor who is having trouble taking care of their yard, offer to help out. It is the right thing to do, and it will also make you safer.