As the West gets drier and hotter, the past few years have been some of the most destructive on record for wildfires. Homeowners who previously thought their property was safe from the embers might find themselves too close to the inferno’s edge—with no idea how to protect their house and belongings in the case of an emergency.
Fireproofing your home begins long before the fire spreads: Start well before the beginning of fire season and continue throughout (roughly late spring to early fall). Use a two-pronged approach: Address your home and its surrounding vegetation to create a 100-foot barrier of defensible space around your property, advises Steve Quarles, the senior scientist for fire protection at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. Here’s how, according to Quarles:
Prepare your noncombustible zone
Make sure there’s nothing combustible in the 5-foot zone surrounding your house. Remember, you’re trying to avoid flames as well as the windblown sparks and firebrands that a raging wildfire emits.
Swap decorative bushes and piles of firewood immediately adjoining the home with a “nonwoody kind of plant.” Think low-growing flowers, or consider swapping the plants for sidewalk or rock mulch (never a combustible mulch like bark or pine, which are “easily ignited by windblown embers,” Quarles says).
Clearing trees might keep the fire itself off your property, but the wind has other ideas. The goal of a noncombustible zone is to remove any materials that might catch fire by ember alone.
Take a walk around your house and eliminate any visible debris—but also take a good look at your siding. If it comes within 6 inches of the ground, Quarles recommends trimming it to provide separation, which is an “effective way to resist ember exposure.”
Keep your trees in check
“You cannot expect the house to survive if you don’t have a good defensible space,” Quarles says. And fire protection doesn’t stop at the end of your 5-foot noncombustible zone—for the next 25 feet, guidelines indicate tree branches should always be at least 10 feet from other trees.
Separate trees and shrubs from each other and other yard items that might catch fire (such as a play set) in order to prevent a crown fire, defined as flames erupting at or near the top of a tree. This “burns longer and hotter and causes radiant heat exposure, which can cause problems with windows and siding,” says Quarles.
Limb up your trees (translation: prune their lowest branches) in order to prevent this outcome, and ensure shrubbery is maintained and regularly watered.
Select materials with fire in mind
If your home lies in prime wildfire territory, now might be the time to remodel. And we’re not talking about putting in a new designer kitchen. “It’s really important that a house be able to resist ember exposures,” says Quarles. Before selecting any materials for renovating or adding to your home, make sure they’ll be a help—not a hindrance—if a wildfire occurs.
Replace any wood shake roofs with a Class A fire–rated roof covering, which is incredibly fire-resistant and comes in a number of styles. Quarles says that is his No. 1 priority. Surround it with a metal drip edge, which “adds an added measure of protection,” he says.
True, no material is fully fireproof, but you can decrease your risk by beginning every construction project with fire protection in mind: Choose noncombustible decking for your porch, dual-pane glass windows, and brick.
Fireproof your exterior
Reality check: Not everyone can afford to renovate their entire house, no matter how dire the wildfire risk. In that case, Quarles has a few recommendations that require only sweat equity.
Clear your gutters regularly and remove debris such as leaves and pine needles from the roof and under decks.
Speaking of those decks—don’t store anything under them, not even a broom, and especially not a gas can or firewood. “Once the deck ignites, you have a flaming exposure to many things,” says Quarles. Like your glass doors: “If the glass breaks on the door, the fire can easily enter the house.”
Check out the vents to your attic or crawl space, which should be covered by a metal screen with a mesh of an eighth of an inch or less—any larger and you risk embers slipping into your home. You’ll want this to be clean and in good condition, so examine it at least once a year to make sure it’s still free of dirt and grime.