Out of pandemic and into the fire: After spending the past year cooped up at home thanks to COVID-19, you might want to take a few steps to protect your beloved abode from another risk—wildfire.
Amid worsening drought throughout the American West, California Governor Gavin Newsom is calling for a record $2 billion in spending on fighting and preventing wildfires this year. And it’s easy to see why, after 2020’s $1 billion budget fell woefully short in preventing more than 4 million acres from getting decimated in one of the worst fire seasons in modern history. The August Complex alone ravaged more than 1 million acres, becoming the state’s first “gigafire” in decades. In all, California wildfires accounted for $12 billion in property damage and suppression costs.
Fire season traditionally spans from July to October, but climate change is expanding the season far outside its boundaries. The growth of the wildland-urban interface (WUI) in the U.S. also plays an important role. The WUI saw a 41% increase in homes and a 33% rise in land from 1990 to 2010, making it the fastest-growing land-use type in the United States.
The key question: How can governments and fire service professionals prepare their communities for wildfire season?
In Washington, the state legislature approved a $125 million increase to fight wildfires after the season got off to an early start—in mid-May. Folks there are still reeling from last year’s fires, like the one that destroyed 80% of all the homes and buildings in the town of Palouse.
As it stands now, the forecast for Utah, Colorado, Arizona and the rest of the region looks just as bad—or even worse—than 2020. And according to the latest analysis from CAPE Analytics and our research partner HazardHub, there’s a good chance you live in a higher risk area than you may realize—especially if your home was recently built.
Fortunately, there are some straightforward steps you can take to dramatically reduce the wildfire risk to your home. The goal of wildfire preparation measures is not to fireproof your home and property, but rather to limit its ability to act as a fuel source. And they’re easier than you may think.
Create 10 Feet of Defensible Space
One of the most effective deterrents is defensible space—which is geek speak for clearing trees, bushes, and shrubs around your house. CALFIRE, for example, recommends residents trim tree branches at least 5 feet away from buildings (in what is called the home ignition zone) and remove dead plants, tree branches, shrubs and any other potential fuel sources from up to 30 feet away from the structure in what it calls “Zone 1” defensible space.
The organization also calls for a second zone of defensible space of up to 100 feet in areas with very high wildfire risk, but that can be pretty daunting for homeowners. The good news: Recent research finds that even 10 feet of vegetation clearance can reduce risk far more dramatically than was previously understood.
Working with geospatial imagery from our partners, CAPE produced an AI model to analyze tens of thousands of wildfire-related insurance claims to understand how much vegetation surrounded each home prior to it sustaining damage.
In the higher fire risk areas, we found that homes with more than 30% vegetation coverage within 10 feet of the home had 2X the likelihood of sustaining damage than those homes that had cleared vegetation.
Removing that vegetation effectively reduces a home’s overall risk, as if it was built in a lower-risk area. So a little clearing goes a long way. That said, the more you can clear, the better—especially in areas that are more prone to experiencing high winds, which can carry flames further and faster across cleared zones.
Driveways should also be wide enough and have enough vertical clearance to allow fire trucks and other first responder vehicles to access your home. Make sure street names and numbers are clearly marked.
If firefighters are unable to protect your home during a wildfire, the presence of defensible space around your home increases the chances that your home will survive.
Protect Your Home From Embers
Defensible space cuts the chances direct flames from a wildfire will get to your house. But what about flying embers? According to CALFIRE, flying embers from a wildfire can destroy homes up to a mile away, and are responsible for the vast majority of homes lost to wildfire. That makes the roof the most vulnerable part of your home. Wood shingles? It’s time to re-roof your home.
But there are a number of steps you can take to prevent embers carried by high winds will ignite your home.
First, use Class A roofing materials (the most fire-resistant) is recommended if you live in a wildfire-prone area. Asphalt shingles, clay or concrete tiles, metal and/or slate are all fire-resistant materials. Make sure to also clean your roof, deck and gutters regularly to remove flammable materials such as dead leaves, pine needles, and other debris that can ignite from burning embers or even radiant heat. Cover vents with metal mesh to keep embers from entering your homes.
According to Farmers Insurance, it’s also a good idea to install metal angle flashing at the edge of the roof. Box-in eaves and use fire proof materials. And while you’re at it, build or remodel walls with ignition-resistant building materials such as stucco, fiber cement wall siding, and other fire retardant materials.
Windows are also important: According to FireSafe Marin, “a window that is exposed to flames may break after only 1 to 3 minutes of exposure.” Single-pane windows are much more prevalent in older homes and are also far more susceptible to heat. So opt for double-pane windows made of tempered glass, which can better withstand the heat from nearby flames.
According to our data, high fire zones have also seen the largest number of new homes built in the last year. If buying new, look for homes that meet the criteria described in this post. But fair warning: Ever since the town of Paradise was devastated in 2018, home insurance costs in El Dorado County have gone through the, well you know. According to CBS News, homeowners insurance premiums now run as high as $19,000 per year.
Don’t Forget Your Deck
CALFIRE recommends that surfaces within 10 feet of the house should be built with ignition-resistant, fire proof materials. An easier, more immediate measure: Farmers Insurance suggests installing metal flashing where wood decking meets the siding if the siding is made of combustible material. Be sure to remove any combustible items from underneath the deck.
It’s also smart to move propane tanks or gas grills 15 feet away from any structures. Oh, and ditch the wooden deck furniture, for newer non-combustible patio furniture and covers.
If the deck overhangs a slope, be sure to create defensible space there, too. You don’t want flames to reach the underside of the deck. FEMA recommends that you clear leaves, trash and other combustible materials from underneath overhanging decks and extend 1/2-inch mesh screening from all overhands down to the ground. If the deck is on wood stilts, cover them with non-combustible materials such as concrete, brick, rock, stucco or metal.
Water Down Your Risk
One of the easiest things you can do to protect your home from wildfire is to make sure you have multiple garden hoses long enough to reach any area of the home or other structures on your property. If you have a pool or well, get a pump. The City of Sacramento even suggests installing a rooftop sprinkler system.
In the event of a wildfire, wetting the roof can protect your home from embers and radiant heat, if the wildfire gets close enough. In fact, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends keeping a garden hose plugged into a water line not just for yourself, but so local fire departments will have access to it.
Don Butz, president of the San Diego Fire Safe Council says that it’s not uncommon for the fire department to use a garden hose to fight a fire when first arriving at a home. “Garden hoses are highly effective,” he says, adding that in 10 minutes’ time, a standard-issue garden hose can put 30 to 40 gallons of water toward fighting the fire while crews are getting fire hoses rigged to hydrants.
California and Utah: Feeling the Heat
These steps are just the beginning of a prudent plan to protect your home during what is sure to be a blistering wildfire season. Especially in California, where 41 of the state’s 58 counties are already in a drought state of emergency that affects 30% of the population. As mentioned earlier, fire season is no longer relegated to the summer months.
As the data captured in our new report demonstrates, bone dry conditions and continued construction in rural, highly-wooded areas are a potentially explosive combination. While El Dorado Hills, California, for instance, touts a bucolic setting in the picturesque Sierra Nevada mountain range, an errant spark could easily become an inferno.
And California’s not alone, either.
The second city in our study, St. George, Utah, is a mecca for retirees and vacationers near Zion National Park. And it’s teeming with new housing developments in the middle of high-risk fire zones where water already has to be piped in from far away sources.
As the West recovers from a once-in-a-lifetime crisis that kept many at home, another awaits right outside the front door.
To learn more, read “The Wildfire West: Tracking Home Construction in High-Risk Areas” from CAPE Analytics
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