Protecting Your Home from Wildfire

As a resident in a rural or forested area, your responsible actions are key in protecting your buildings and property from wildfire.

Basic Steps to Wildfire Protection

  1. Understand how wildfires start and spread.
  2. Choose a building site that offers natural protection.
  3. Build a house that is fire-resistant, or improve the fire-resistance of your present house.
  4. Use firewise landscaping principles to reduce a fire's ability to spread easily.
  5. Follow fire-safety rules.

These steps all work together. If you are weak in one factor, another strong step may make up for it. For example, wildfire has less chance to reach the foundation if you keep material that easily burns away from the building. This way, the construction materials used for the foundation aren't quite as important. But, if a vital step is lacking in an important area, any improvements may mean nothing. If vegetation is growing right next to the building, the building may burn even though other measures are followed.

Your Building Site

Choose the location of your house and the type of site carefully. The chance that your property will survive a wildfire could depend on the decisions you make. What if you already own a site? You can make many fire prevention improvements around your house and land as suggested in this article.

Choosing a New Site

Fire Protection

You may have chosen to live in either a rural or forest area to get away from a busy city. Don't forget that the fire department may be only a small group of volunteers located far away. Before you buy property, it is important to ask local fire officials if the fire department will have trouble getting to the site that interests you. More information can be found in the section titled "access."

Slopes

Don't be tempted to build on a hillside because of the marvelous view. It could cost you your home. Be sure to build on the most level portion of the land as fire spreads rapidly, even on minor slopes.

If your site is near a ridge, set your home back 30 to 100 feet from the crest. Clear vegetation down slope from the house. Avoid narrow valleys or canyons. These act as natural chimneys during a fire and can draw heat and flames to your home.

Improving Sites

Access

Firefighters need to get to your home quickly and safely. They also need room to move their equipment around.

  • A gate with a strong lock could stop firefighters from reaching your home in time to save it. If you must have a locked gate, leave a spare key with your local fire agency.
  • Access roads should be two-way, with broad shoulders to let emergency vehicles through. Avoid steep and winding roads. Plan grades that have no more of a rise than 10 feet in 100 feet. Provide a minimum unobstructed width of 12 feet and a minimum unobstructed height of 15 feet.
  • Try to place your driveway on the downhill side of your home or the side that faces the wind to serve as a fire barrier.
  • Bridges must be wide and strong enough to hold a fire truck. The bridge should support a minimum weight of 40,000 pounds. Ask your local fire officials what they require. They may have a small truck now, but could buy heavier equipment in the future. Ask them to check bridges on your property and on roads leading to your property.
  • Include ample turnaround space at the end of your private drive or road. Make sure it is at least 100 feet in diameter. Don't park on it. Clear a separate area for parking.

Make Your Home Easy to Find

Firefighters need to find your property quickly. At the entrance to your property put up a sign with your house number, road name, and any other needed details. Make sure the sign can be read from the main road. Use large, easy-to-read letters and numbers in a color that contrasts with the background. Keep trees and bushes cut back so that sign is always clearly visible.

Structures

When we think of having a home in a rural or forested area we tend to dream of a cedar shake chalet with a broad, open deck and a cozy fireplace that is nestled among tall pines. To protect yourself from fire, this is not the type of structure and surroundings you want. However, if this is what you already have, you can still do a lot to make your home more "firewise."

Start With Design

Your home can be firewise and still be attractive. Protective features such as smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, water taps and enclosed eaves are easy to add. If you are building or renovating, you and your architect or builder should talk to fire safety experts and have them review your plans.

Construction Materials

Roofing

Roofs are the largest surface areas exposed to airborne sparks. Studies show that sparks setting fire to wood shake roofs are the major reason for home losses in rural and forested areas. The best roofing materials are those that have the best resistance to fire including metal, tile, and fiberglass

Asphalt shingles and tarpaper are less protective because they are made of oil-based products which can ignite when exposed to enough heat.

Wood, such as cedar shakes, offers the least protection. The smallest spark can set fire to dry, sun-baked wooden shingles. Note: fire retardants are available, but must be applied at regular intervals. Follow the manufacturers recommendations.

Gutters

Metal gutters are best. Wooden and plastic gutters are a hazard. All gutters can be a danger if they are not regularly cleaned; airborne sparks can set fire to debris in them.

Outside Walls

Like roofs, walls should be built with fire-resistant materials. Stone, brick, and metal are best. Wood and vinyl give the least protection. Do not build on poles or pilings.

Install water taps on two sides of your home and near each outbuilding.

Foundations

The foundation of a building is often the first area to come into contact with a spreading wildfire. A closed foundation is safer than an open foundation.

  • Closed - The best foundations are made of cement block or stone. The material will not burn, and fire can't be trapped under the building where it could set fire to beams and floor bases.
  • Open - A foundation of wood posts or cement-block pillars with no skirting has the greatest risk and should be fire-protected. It can be improved by covering open areas with one-quarter inch (6 mm) wire mesh. If there is a good firebreak around the building (see the Landscaping section), wooden or fiberglass skirting is acceptable. Skirting also helps to reduce the accumulation of debris under the building. Note: never store flammable materials underneath.

Structural Hazards

Roofs

A flat roof holds sparks that can set fire to the roof. Sparks will roll off a steep roof, but can get caught in roof valleys or grooves.

To prevent sparks from entering your home through vents, cover exterior attic and underfloor vents with wire mesh no larger than 1/8 of an inch. Do not use plastic or nylon mesh as it will melt and burn.

Make sure undereave and soffit vents are closer to the roof line than the wall.

Box in eaves but provide adequate ventilation to prevent condensation.

Keep gutters, eaves, and roof clear of leaves and other debris.

Keep chimneys and stove pipes above the roofline.

Roof sprinklers can give a false sense of security. Remember that pumps will fail if electricity stops, high winds can blow the water away, and water pressure is often lowered when firefighters open hydrants in public water systems.

Windows

Windows are often overlooked as fire hazards, but can be a serious risk. Radiant heat can pass through them and set fire to curtains. Windows can break easily when exposed to fire, opening up a path for fire to enter the house. Cracked windows shatter with heat, letting in fire and sparks.

Multi-pane windows provide insulation from trapped air and give more protection from radiant heat than single-pane windows. Tempered glass is more resistant to breakage than single or double pane glass. Use this for the largest, most exposed picture windows, sliding doors and other large glass areas. Smaller panes (<2' wide) hold up better in their frames than larger ones when exposed to fire.  

Protect windows from the outside with fireproof shutters. Fire-resistant draperies and metal flashing around skylights will also add protection to your home.

Heating Systems

The choice of heating systems will not affect the survival of your home in a wildfire, but it affects the extent to which your home is a fire hazard. Heating a building with a wood-burning stove or furnace increases fire hazards. The hazard increases even more when the chimney is not insulated and has no spark arresters. Spark arresters and regularly cleaned chimneys will greatly reduce the risk of starting a fire.

Firewise Landscaping

Firewise landscaping means changing, reducing, or eliminating the amount or type of fuel near your building by creating a fuel break. The fuel break should be around all buildings and be at least 30 feet wide with more width on the downhill side of a slope.

Clear a three-foot strip around the outside of each building down to sand or gravel (mineral soil). This reduces the threat of a surface fire burning across the area and reaching the building. This strip is the first section of your fuel break.

Trees in the 30-foot fuel break should have all branches removed up to a height of 6 to 10 feet. Space trees so that edges of the crowns are at least 10 to 16 feet apart.

Keep the fuel break clear of everything that could burn. Remove small trees, household debris, ground fuel, and shrubs.

Green lawns or rock gardens are good fuel breaks. Grass must be kept watered and cut and dead grass removed.

Stone, brick, or masonry walls, free of vegetation, are good fire barriers. They can be located inside or outside of the fuel break area.

Beyond the 30-foot fuel break area, prune branches away from power lines and outbuildings. Remove ladder fuels by cutting lower branches and dead branches. Remove small shrubs, scrub growth, ground litter, dead trees and older trees.

Make sure an elevated wooden deck is not located at the top of a hill where it will be in direct line of a fire moving up slope; consider a terrace instead.

If you wish to attach an all-wood fence to your home, use masonry or metal as a protective barrier between the fence and house.

Use non-flammable metal when constructing a trellis and cover with high-moisture, nonflammable vegetation.

Fire-Resistant Plants

Many common plants naturally resist fire and can keep fire from spreading. Generally, well-watered green plants burn slowly. Select plants that have little oil content, or that don't produce much litter, or have leaves that stay moist. Your local garden center can provide more information.

Yard Waste

Don't burn yard wastes as this increases risk of wildfire. Plow or roto-till material such as grass clippings, hedge trimmings or dead plants into your garden or make compost or mulch with it.

Composting

There are several methods of composting. The easiest is to put garden and yard waste in a pile in a back corner of your property. The waste will slowly decompose (break down). If you want it to break down faster, your environmental agency or Cooperative Extension Service office can advise you of various methods.

Mulching

Spread garden and lawn waste in thin layers on the ground. For example, grass clippings, leaves, and compost can be placed around garden vegetables and flowers to keep down weeds and retain moisture. Mulching will also keep the soil around your plants cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

Fire Safe Lifestyle

Your Home Check-up

  • Mark the entrance to your property with a sign that can be easily seen and read.
  • Keep firefighting equipment handy including fire extinguishers, buckets, shovels, hose and ladders that reach to your roof.
  • Create defensible space around your buildings with a 30-foot wide fuel break with additional space on downward slopes. Adequate thinning is reached in the 30 foot "defensible space" when the outer edges of tree crowns are at least 10 to 12 feet apart. If your home is located at the crest of a steep hill, thin fuels at least 100 feet below the crest.
  • Remove dead limbs, leaves, and other ground litter within the defensible space.
  • Prune branches from trees within the defensible space to a height of 10 feet above the ground. Also remove shrubs, small trees, or other potential "ladder" fuels from beneath large trees; left in place, these can carry a ground fire into tree crowns.
  • Extend defensible space by removing dead wood and ladder fuels beyond the 30-foot fuel break.
  • Mow dry grasses and weeds to a height of 2" or less and keep well watered, especially during periods of high fire danger.
  • Remove limbs that extend over your roof, or those directly above or within15 feet laterally of a chimney.
  • Select the least flammable shrubs that will achieve the desired effect in your landscaping.
  • Maintain an irrigated greenbelt immediately around your home using grass, flower gardens, or ornamental shrubbery. An alternative is rock or other noncombustible material; avoid bark or wood chip mulch in this area.
  • Prevent combustible materials and debris from accumulating beneath decks or elevated porches.
  • Clear roof and gutters of needles and leaves to eliminate an ignition source for firebrands.
  • Store combustibles such as firewood, wooden picnic tables, boats, stacked lumber, fuel, paint and solvents at least 100 feet away from the house.
  • Place LPG tanks far enough away from buildings for valves to be shut off in case of fire. Keep area around the tank clear of flammable vegetation.
  • Place skirting or mesh around open foundations.
  • Replace wooden shingles with fiberglass or metal, or regularly treat them with a retardant.
  • Put fire retardant on wood siding, or, better still, brick the outside of your home. Metal and stone are also good, fire resistant siding materials.
  • Close in the ends of eaves and put metal screens on vents.
  • Insulate chimneys and install spark arresters on them.
  • Inspect your home regularly to look for deterioration such as breaks and spaces between roof tiles, warping wood, or cracks and crevices where sparks can gather.

These guidelines are generally accepted in most states and provinces. However, check with your local officials to find out what local regulations may apply. Rural and forested areas sometimes have special building and zoning codes.

Make sure you and your family are prepared for a fire emergency.

  • Develop a fire escape plan and practice it with your family regularly.
  • Have at least two ground floor escape exits.
  • Install smoke detectors or alarms and test them monthly. Replace batteries annually, or as recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Set up a fire-watch with neighbors. This can protect your home when you are not there.
  • Have reliable telephones or two-way radios and the local number for reporting fires.
  • Know where safety areas are within your subdivision. Meadows, rock outcrops, and wide roads are good examples. Know all emergency escape routes.
  • Never leave your burn pile unattended and have a hose at the ready.

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