Residents of the western United States, especially in suburban areas are at an increased risk of being in the wrong path of a wildfire. Smokey Bear (it is officially "Smokey Bear" and not "Smokey THE Bear" according to the Forest Service) has been warning generations of Americans how to prevent wildfires, but people in fire-prone areas may want to know if there's more they can do to protect their homes, should wildfires approach.
There are in fact, many ways to upgrade your home to prevent embers and sparks from catching and igniting your house, and we'll cover them here, but please remember that the enormous and destructive power of a wildfire is not something you can "fight" on your own. Should your area ever be given an evacuation order, please don't mess around and take any unnecessary chances.
For lighter reading, we suggest Wildfire Factoids.
What Is Your Fire Risk?
If you live in the Western United States, especially along the west coast or in the desert southwest, you are at increased risk. You should learn about the history of wildfires in your area, and be wary of recent weather (especially droughts).
Right now, though, you can find out the specific risk of fire in your area by looking at this page maintained by the National Weather Service. You can also see a detailed list of all wildfires currently burning in the United States at InciWeb.
Know safe fire practices
- Don't build fires near trees or bushes.
- Install smoke detectors in every level of your house.
- Never leave a fire unattended, not even a cigarette in an ashtray.
- Avoid open burning.
- Keep extinguishers handy, and always have a way of putting out any fire that you create, even in an outdoor grill.
Be ready for emergency evacuation.
Have an evacuation plan and route prepared (with alternates) in case any routes of escape are closed. Have an emergency kit prepared, and be sure to have a communication plan in place or a way of communicating with your family, even if phone lines are overwhelmed (consider using Notify).
The 30/15 Zone
Withing 15 feet of your house, keep all vegetation to a minimum. If you are on a hill, extend that zone all the way down the hill, as fire spreads VERY quickly uphill. Stone walls, swimming pools and concrete patios are all fire blockers and are great buffers from either heat or flame. Aesthetics, especially for plant lovers, will have to take second place over safety, however when inside this inner zone:
- Keep all shrubs and landscaping outside the "zone." Move them or cut them down.
- No vines on the house. Remove them if you have them.
- No branches, limbs or shrubs within 15 feet of chimneys or stove pipes, or the ground.
- Keep 15 feet of space between trees.
- Replace pine, fir, eucalyptus, and junipers with lower growing, less flammable types of trees. These species are especially problematic.
- Keep your grass cut at two inches or less, and keep leaves, brush, and dead limbs and trees off your lawn.
- Keep gas grills and propane tanks at least 15 feet from any structure, and keep 15 feet cleared around the grill itself. Do not grill in high risk times.
The 100 Zone
This second zone starts at 30 feet and goes out to at least 100 feet. If this is a hill, this zone should extend much farther.
- Keep electrical lines underground, if possible. Otherwise ask the utility company to clear power lines of any fallen branches or debris.
- Don't use bark or wood mulching for landscaping.
- Don't allow anything combustible within 30 feet of any structure.
- Firewood should be 100 feet and uphill of any structure.
- Store any other combustible or flammable material in approved safety containers and keep them away from the house.
Other best practices
- Keep areas under decks and porches clear of any leaves or other debris.
- Porches, balconies and other overhanging areas are vulnerable points. Avoid using these as storage areas or allowing vegetation to grow under them, and attach 1/2 inch mesh screening from the overhangs on to the ground.
- Wooden stilts are also vulnerable areas. Enclose them with concrete, brick, stone, metal or stucco.
- Use fire-resistant patio furniture and covers.
- If you are planning on building a deck, build it on the ground level.
Enclose eaves and overhangs
Like porches and balconies, eaves trap the heat rising along the exterior siding, so enclose all eaves to reduce the hazard.
Cover any vents with wire mesh / use spark arrestors in chimneys
Attic vents and other ventilation openings are also vulnerable points for embers and flaming debris to enter. Cover all openings with a 1/4 inch or smaller mesh to keep them from landing inside your home. Likewise, you don't want sparks escaping your home. Make sure all chimneys and stovepipes have spark arrestors installed.
Use fire resistant siding
Use fire resistant materials in the siding of your home, such as stucco, metal, brick, cement shingles, concrete and rock.
Use safety glass for windows and sliding glass doors
Windows allow heat to pass through, and can ignite combustible things inside. This is especially true for larger windows. Thermal glass, especially dual and triple pane glass, as well as fire resistant shutters and drapes, greatly reduce the risk of combustion.
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.
For more information on what to do in the event of a wildfire, please read During a Wildfire.