Wildfires only happen in California, right? Well, maybe in Florida, but certainly not in our neighborhood. However, in truth, nearly every state has been devastated by wildfires in the last century. Over 140,000 wildfires occurred on average each year, burning a total of almost 14.5 million acres. And since 1990, over 900 homes have been destroyed each year by wildfires. While wildfires are more frequent in the West, recent events have demonstrated that this is clearly a nationwide problem. So, what can you do to protect yourself, your home and your property from wildfires? This information will help you understand why your home is at risk and how you can reduce the risk to your home and property.
Wildfires occur regularly. Whether started by humans or by lightning, they are part of a natural cycle that helps to maintain the health of our forests. Today, more than ever, people are moving into remote areas, with the desire to "get back to nature," without addressing the dangers that exist around them. A tremendous wildfire danger exists where homes blend together with the wildland, creating the wildland/urban interface. The addition of homes there interrupts the natural cycle of wildfires. Ultimately, this contributes to a dangerous build-up of old vegetation, leading to an uncontrollable wildfire.
Conditions must be just right for a wildfire to start and spread. Specifically, fuel, weather and topography work together to determine how quickly a wildfire travels and at what intensity.
Fuels: The two basic fuel types in the wildland/urban interface are vegetation and structures.
Vegetation: Fuel in its natural form consists of living and dead trees, bushes and grasses. Typically, grasses burn more quickly and with less intensity than trees. Any branches or shrubs between 18 inches and 6 feet are considered to be ladder fuels. Ladder fuels help convert a ground fire to a crown fire (tree tops) which moves much more quickly.
Structural Density: The closer the homes are together, the easier it is for the flames to spread from one structure to another.
Weather: High temperatures, low humidity, and swift winds increase the probability of ignitions and difficulty of control. Short and long-term drought further exacerbates the problem.
Slope: Slope is the upward or downward incline or slant of terrain. For example, a completely flat plain represents a 0% slope and a hillside that rises 30 feet for every 100 feet horizontal distance represents a 30% slope. Hot gases rise in front of the fire along the slope face, pre-heating the up-slope vegetation, moving a grass fire up to four times faster with flames twice as long as a fire on level ground.
Homes in a wildland/urban interface area can be designed and maintained to increase the chances of surviving a wildfire without the intervention of the fire department. You can help protect your home on two different fronts:
A survivable space is an area of reduced fuels between your home and the untouched wildland. This provides enough distance between the home and a wildfire to ensure that the home can survive without extensive effort from either you or the fire department. One of the easiest ways to establish a survivable space is to use the zone concept. Zone 1 is the closest to your home and Zones 2 and 3 move progressively further away.
ZONE 1: Establish a well-irrigated area around your home. In a low hazard area, it should extend a minimum of 30 feet from your home on all sides. As your hazard risk increases, a clearance of between 50 and 100 feet or more may be necessary, especially on any downhill sides of the lot. Plantings should be limited to carefully spaced indigenous species. Refer to the following diagram for more detailed information related to Zone 1 considerations.
ZONE 2: Place low-growing plants, shrubs and carefully spaced trees in this area. Maintain a reduced amount of vegetation. Your irrigation system should also extend into this area. Trees should be at least 10 feet apart, and all dead or dying limbs should be trimmed. For trees taller than 18 feet, prune lower branches within six feet of the ground. No tree limbs should come within 10 feet of your home.
ZONE 3: This furthest zone from your home is a slightly modified natural area. Thin selected trees and remove highly flammable vegetation such as dead or dying trees and shrubs.
So how far should Zones 2 and 3 extend? Well, that depends upon your risk and your property's boundaries. In a low hazard area, these two zones should extend another 20 feet or so beyond the 30 feet in Zone 1. This creates a modified landscape of over 50 feet total. In a moderate hazard area, these two zones should extend at least another 50 feet beyond the 50 feet in Zone 1. This would create a modified landscape of over 100 feet total. In a high hazard area, these two zones should extend at least another 100 feet beyond the 100 feet in Zone 1. This would create a modified landscape of over 200 feet total.
Once you have created your home's survivable space, you must maintain it or risk losing the benefit of its protection.
Creating and maintaining a survivable space is a necessary first step. The next step is to use fire resistant building materials and construction techniques in retrofitting your home.
Keep in mind that a wildfire sees your home as just another fuel source. The survivable space you construct around your home will keep all but the most ferocious wildfires at bay. However, if the wildfire does break through your first line of defense, an ignition might occur on your home's exterior. The ideal situation is for your home's exterior materials to prevent or retard the flames from burning into your interior walls, soffits, attic area, and rooms.
Now you will need to decide on the best modifications for your home, given your risk.
Roof: The roof is the most vulnerable part of your home to wildfires. During a wildfire, firebrands can fall on your roof, landing in your roof's nooks and crannies where a fire can easily start. Once your roof covering does ignite, chances are very good that the rest of your home will follow. The best way to avoid this situation is to make sure your roof is fire-resistant. The two main fire resistance tests used today include: ASTM E108 and UL 790. There are three levels of classification awarded under the test protocol, A, B, and C, with A being the most fire resistant. Some treated wood shake shingle products have ratings of Class C or better. Over time, the effectiveness of this chemical is reduced by weathering before the end of the product's useful life and may leave your roof unprotected. If your roof needs to be re-covered, consider installing a Class A roof covering.
Exterior Walls: Exterior walls are susceptible to a wildfire's radiant and convective heat. Although a fire on an exterior wall may not penetrate inside your home, the fire can 'bridge' to more vulnerable areas such as eaves, soffits, vents and windows. Wall materials that resist heat and flames include cement, plaster, stucco and concrete masonry such as stone, brick or block. Though some materials will not burn, such as vinyl, they may lose their integrity when exposed to high temperature and fall away or melt, providing the fire with a direct path inside the home.
Exterior Windows, Glass Doors and Skylights: Exposure to the heat of the wildfire can cause glass to fracture and collapse, leaving an opening for flames and firebrands to enter your home. This applies to both double pane and single pane glass, since double pane glass is only slightly more resistant to heat than single pane glass. On the other hand, single or double pane tempered glass windows, doors and skylights typically fracture at higher exposures, well above the radiant heat exposures capable of igniting the surrounding wood.
Eaves, Fascias, Soffits: Eaves, fascias and soffits are vulnerable to both firebrands and convective exposures. Eaves, fascias and soffits should be 'boxed' or enclosed with noncombustible materials to reduce the size of the vents. Materials that melt or burn in relatively low temperatures, such as PVC and vinyl siding, should not be used, since they do not provide adequate protection and can melt in the heat of the wildfire. Non-combustible screening should be used in the vents.
Attic, Subfloor or Foundation Vents: Wind and/or direct contact with a fire's convective heat can push firebrands through the vents into your home's basement or crawl space. Your vent openings should be screened to prevent firebrands or other objects larger than 1/4 inch from entering your home. Both your vents and screens should be constructed of materials that will not burn or melt when exposed to radiate or convective heat or firebrands. Also, these vents should be corrosion-resistant to help minimize required maintenance.
Fireplace Chimneys: Windblown embers can access your home through your fireplace's chimney flue. Once inside, these firebrands then collect on flammable objects, greatly increasing the chance of combustion. The situation can also be reversed – embers from your own fire can fly out the chimney and start a wildfire, right in your own neighborhood. The best way to avoid this situation is to install a spark arrestor made from welded wire or woven wire mesh with openings less than 1/4" wide.
Overhangs and Other Attachments: Overhangs and other attachments include any additional structures attached to a residence such as room pushouts, bay windows, decks, porches, carports and fences. These features are often very vulnerable to convective exposures. When assessing your home and property, if the feature in question is attached to your home, it should be considered part of your home. There are a number of ways you can reduce the vulnerability of your home's overhangs and attachments. First and foremost, remove all fuels around these areas. Next, box in the undersides of the overhangs, decks and balconies with noncombustible or fire-resistant materials to reduce the possibility of ignition. For fences, make sure that they don't attach directly to your home. Even if you modify your home's landscape to incorporate the most fire-resistant materials and design into your home's construction, there is no guarantee that a wildfire will not threaten your home. It is important that your local fire department be able to find and defend your home.
Street Signs and Numbers: If made from combustible materials, your street signs and numbers can ignite or melt, leaving the fire department with no ability to locate your home. It is critical that signs and numbers be noncombustible and visible from the road.
Driveways: Fire trucks and equipment are quite large and often have difficulty in tight spots. Consequently, your home's driveway must be large enough to accommodate the typical sized trucks. Fire experts recommend a driveway at least 12 feet wide and 13 feet of vertical clearance.
Gates: If your home is gated, it is very important that the gate opens inward and be wide enough to accommodate the fire fighting equipment. Experts also recommend that the gate be at least 30 feet off of the main road, so that the equipment can pull off the road to open the gate. If the gate is locked, the lock should not be so strong that firefighters cannot break it in an emergency.
As you would prepare for any unexpected emergency or disaster, don't forget to prepare your family by completing the following:
A well prepared home has the greatest chance of surviving a wildfire. For more information about protecting your family and home from wildfires, check these sources:
REQUEST A FREE EVALUATION of your property to determine your vulnerability to wildfires and to learn how you can reduce fire hazards that may threaten your property. Please contact the Salt River Fire Department at 480.850.8240 to obtain additional information or to schedule an evaluation.