Article by Rachel Perez
Wildfires are some of the most destructive forces of nature. Over the past few decades, unfortunately, wildfires have become more common and more consuming. In the past 15 years alone, nearly 90,000 structures were burned by wildfires.
When building in wildfire-prone areas, preparation and foresight will help prevent even more structures from succumbing to the flames. From fire-resistant material to home defense strategies, here are four ways to construct and prepare for wildfires.
The Facts on Wildfires
Any patch of dry grass or vegetation can catch on fire under the right conditions. A fire must burn at least 10 acres to be considered significant. Throughout most of the country, this usually happens west of the Rockies. The most common states with wildfire potential are:
- Northwest Utah
- Northern Nevada
- Southern and Western Arizona
- Southern New Mexico
California is the true epicenter of wildfire destruction in the United States. In 2020 alone, 40% of all acreage burned was in California. This statistic is even more grim considering that humans caused 95% of those fires. Trash burning and arson are always major causes, but illegal campfires are by far the largest culprit of California’s significant fires.
With drought conditions continuing without an end in sight, these areas are still highly prone to fire. Thus, wildfire safety often begins with assessing the weather and other vital factors.
Factors That Cause Wildfires
Fire doesn’t spring out of nowhere. For a wildfire to start, it must begin with a spark. That spark can come from several means. And though humans are often to blame, this is not always the case.
Combine people and fire, and there’s always a chance for destruction in fire-prone areas. Campfires are often allowed in specific areas and within specially designated fire rings. On particular days, such as those with high wind or deep into a drought, burning of any kind may become illegal.
Still, that doesn’t always stop people. As stated above, illegal campfires were responsible for nearly all of California’s fires. That included over 17,000 structures destroyed from illegal camping behavior.
Camping isn’t the only human behavior that can lead to wildfires. A burning cigarette can turn into a blaze within a few moments. Even smoke bombs from gender reveal parties can unleash a firestorm under the perfect conditions.
Weather plays a significant role in the formation of any fire. Uncontrolled wildfires are rare in areas that receive regular rainfall. However, a sudden storm in a fire-prone area can lead to a surge of blazes as lightning strikes spark the dry vegetation into a full-blown fire.
Heavy winds and low humidity are other crucial factors for wildfire development. Higher winds fan the flames and carry embers over fire lines. Fast winds will push flames to the ground, increasing the likelihood of vegetation catching ablaze. Likewise, the drier the air and vegetation, the easier it is to catch on fire.
Constructing Fire-Resistant Buildings
If you live in a wildfire-prone area, you must take precautions to protect your property. Constructing your buildings from fire-resistant materials is crucial, but just as important is keeping your property prepared for the next blaze.
Use Fireproof and Fire-Resistant Materials
Building homes from fireproof materials from the ground up is smart if you have the money. One can also retrofit a building with fireproof and fire-resistant materials. If cost is a limiting factor, use these materials in the weakest areas of the house. These include:
- Roofs: Roofs make great surfaces to catch embers and other burning material. To fight against fires, use Class-A fireproof materials. These include slate tiles, metal sheets, or clay and concrete masonry. Anything less has a chance to support fire.
- Decks: Decks are often massive wooden structures ready for combustion. Plus, they act as storage areas for other combustible materials, such as firewood or accelerants. Build decks out of fireproof composite boards, or specially-treated fire-resistant wood.
- Walls: Interior materials are just as crucial when fighting against fires. Fireproof materials for interior walls include gypsum board, brick, and stucco. ICF (insulated concrete forms) concrete walls are expanding polystyrene bricks. These withstand fire for up to four hours, thus keeping the blaze from spreading further.
- Windows: High heat can shatter glass. This allows flames and embers to enter the home. To avoid this, fire shutters can cover the entire window. Or, replace windows with dual-paned models to provide an extra layer of protection.
Remove Fire-Prone Items
Always keep fire-prone areas away from your house. To be safe, remove:
- Wood piles: Whether for a fireplace or outdoor fire areas, keep wood and log piles away from your home.
- Trees, shrubs, and vegetation: Even green foliage will burn under a wildfire. The immense heat will dry out vegetation and turn them into prime fuel sources. To keep your home safe, don’t allow any trees, shrubs, or other vegetation to grow around the house.
- Accelerants: Never store any flammable liquids near the home. This includes fuels, oils, torch oils, vehicle fluids, or any other material that would aid a fire.
- Fencing: Wood fencing near the home will allow flames to travel over fire lines.
Prepare for Wildfires
Once you’ve eliminated all the fire-prone items around your home, you should prepare the property for wildfires. To do this, identify your defensible zones and the high-risk areas.
Defending a home from a wildfire starts with the property itself. By dividing it into three zones of defense, a homeowner has a better chance of saving their house. These zones are:
- Zone 0: Located 0-5 feet from the house, this zone is also known as the Ember-Resistant Zone. There should be no vegetation in this zone. In all respects, this zone should be bare, free of outdoor furniture, long grass, and other debris. This zone also includes the house itself, so make sure the gutters and roof are clear of flammable debris.
- Zone 1: The Lean, Celan, and Green Zone; this space is 5-30 feet from the house. Zone 1 consists of gardens and yards. Trim all trees to be at least 10 feet from other trees. Any vegetation aside from trimmed grass should also be fire-resistant.
- Zone 2: Also known as the Reduce Fuel Zone, this is the area 30-100 feet from your home. Strategically plant vegetation to keep flames low in order to reduce spread. Keep grass trimmed to 4 inches or lower. Trim all trees so that branches are at least 6 feet off the ground. There should be at least 6 feet between any shrubs and trees, as well.
Focusing on the defense zones can help a home withstand an oncoming wildfire. To further the chances, pay extra attention to high-risk areas.
Roofs can catch embers and other flaming debris. During an active fire, it can be wise to constantly watch the roof and remove burning items as they appear. Likewise, soak your deck (if possible) to reduce the chance of combusting. Finally, consider using a sprinkler system to keep surfaces wet throughout the property.
Keep an Updated Home Preparedness Checklist
Preparation is often the best defense against wildfires. In the heat of the moment, crucial information can slip from your mind. Therefore, having an easily-accessible checklist can make all the difference.
The checklist features three columns of focus: preparing and planning, inside the home, and outside the home. Important check items featured on the list include:
- Stay up to date on active fire conditions.
- Have an emergency kit packed and an evacuation plan ready to enact.
- Bi-annual chimney sweeps for added protection.
- Create up-to-date visual records of your possessions for insurance purposes.
In addition to a checklist, wildfire drills can help showcase the strengths and weaknesses of your wildfire plan. If you have children, make sure they understand their jobs during a wildfire. Staying prepared will help keep everyone safe.
For those living in wildfire areas, there is a high likelihood of encountering a wildfire that threatens your home and property. Careful preparations can help spare your house and keep your family safe.
Remember to use fireproof products around the home to replace combustible materials. Keep the areas around the house clear of fuel sources, and make sure the family knows what to do during a wildfire. With fireproof materials and an intelligent plan, anyone can stay safe and fire-free.