It only takes minutes. The images of out-of-control wildfires we see on the news and through social media outlets are a stark reminder of the unbelievable destruction that can take place in an obscenely short period of time.
Across the United States, wildfires cause billions of dollars in damage per year. In 2018 alone, 58,100 wildfires occurred in the U.S., damaging nearly 8.8 million acres of land, NOAA statistics indicate. If you want to secure your home against a wildfire or brush fire, you need to take into account the building materials and design of your home and the placement of near-home vegetation. Examine the following eight vulnerable spots, and find out what you can do to keep your home safe from a fire.
BE READY TO EVACUATE — AND HAVE THESE ITEMS ON HAND
You’re watching the news, and you know that the wildfires are spreading and nearing your neighborhood.
What do you do? What do you bring?
When To Evacuate:
When deciding whether to evacuate, you should know that most deaths occur when people decide to protect their home. Therefore, you should determine whether you will evacuate when authorities recommend it. You need to leave in time to avoid being caught in fire, smoke or road congestion.
What You Should Have On Hand:
You should decide ahead of time what to bring when evacuating, which may include the following:
• Prescription medications
• Important documents (birth certificates, insurance papers, photos)
• Jewelry and similar valuables
• Pet supplies (food, medications, leash, carrier)
• Laptop and charger
• Cell phone and charger
Make a checklist, so you don’t forget anything. Also, make sure you have a sturdy box on hand for collecting these important items, especially when you’re in a hurry.
“Even though you may think your canned goods are safe after wildfire, bacteria can grow at high temperatures. You should discard them, even if they look okay.”
TARGET 1 Roof Coverings and Edge
Your roof covering and the edge are the most vulnerable parts of your home. These areas endure the most exposure to the elements: rain, sun, wind and so on. During a wildfire, this is the area most susceptible to embers.
Action Step: Know your roof’s fire rating. Class A classifies the highest rating, while Class C classifies the lowest. Even if you have a Class A roof, it’s vulnerable to wildfire if the roof has a complex number of angles. Embers can more easily collect in the joints between these angles. The material of your roof covering also makes a difference. Rounded tiles may allow openings for not only birds and rodents to enter the roof, but flame exposure.
Action Step: If you have a round tile roof, then you should install bird stops. They won’t necessarily keep tiny embers out of the space, but they should significantly reduce the accumulation of combustible debris.
TARGET 2 Gutters
Similarly, debris can also collect around skylights and in rain gutters.
Action Step: Clear out your gutters before fire season because the debris can easily ignite in a wildfire. A metal gutter can hold the debris in place so that it burns up onto the edge of the roof. A roof edge can be vulnerable depending on the materials the builders used and how well the flashing protects the edge. A vinyl (plastic) gutter will melt and fall off. The potential is there that the burning contents will ignite materials or vegetation on the ground.
TARGET 3 Attics
If you’ve ever gone up into your attic during warm weather, you know that this enclosure is usually hot and dry—meaning that fire will spread easily here. Note: The most secure type of attic is ventless, and the best way to make use of this is to build your home that way. If your home is already built, experts do not advise closing off your vents without considering moisture-related damage issues.
TARGET 4 Overhangs
Wider overhangs are more susceptible to wildfires, because they trap embers. However, they can protect the wall from the radiant heat.
Action Step: Make sure you use ignition-resistant or non-combustible soffit materials in your overhang.
WHAT NOT TO EAT IN YOUR DAMAGED HOME
The unthinkable has happened: Your home has caught fire, but you have made your way back into your home to salvage your belongings. Do you know what to do with your food?
Even though you may think your canned goods are safe, bacteria can grow at high temperatures. You should discard them, even if they look okay.
Toxic fumes and chemicals can damage food stored in permeable containers such as plastic wrap and screw-topped jars, so it’s best to toss them, too.
Is your fridge okay? Check it for odors. If it smells funny, err on the side of being safe. Door seals aren’t airtight, so toxic fumes and chemicals can affect the contents. If the food has an off odor or taste, discard it.
Room Temperature Food:
Again, toxic fumes and chemicals can affect these items (such as potatoes, onions or fruit). Toss them. If you want to save your canned goods and cookware, wash them in a strong detergent solution and then soak in bleach (One teaspoon per quart of water).
“The most important thing that you can do to help your local firefighters to protect your home is to properly clear the brush located around the perimeter of your home.”
– P. Michael Freeman, County of Los Angeles Fire Chief
TARGET 5 Windows
An open window during a wildfire is a bad idea. No surprise there. Larger windows, however, are more prone to small cracks. Should a fire ignite the framing or cause enough temperature stress, the windows can shatter.
Action Step: Opinions about window construction materials vary widely, but ideally, windows should have multiple panes, with one of the panes being tempered. Tempered glass is four times stronger and more resistant to thermal exposures. Also, make sure you have window screens. Fine mesh reduces the size of embers.
TARGET 6 Deck
Do you have materials stored under your deck? You may want to move them before wildfire season. It makes no matter if your wooden deck was treated with fire retardant or it is made with composite products, all these materials are susceptible to fire—especially when combustible materials are around the deck. (You can find a listing of decking products that comply with stringent California requirements in the WUI Product Handbook.
Action Step: The best thing to do with your deck is to keep it free of leaves and needles, including those that collect between the deck boards and side of the house. Also, be aware if you have any decaying wood, as this is more prone to ignite. And move items that can attract flames from underneath and around your deck.
TARGET 7 Sidings
You can divide siding into three categories: combustible (solid wood, plywood, oriented strand board, compressed wood fiber products), non-combustible (three-coat stucco, metal, fiber cement) and ignition-resistant.
Action Step: Make sure your siding is of the non-combustible or ignition-resistant variety, particularly in the trim and joints. In the latter case, sheathing can increase the time the fire needs to penetrate into the stud cavity between the inner and outer walls.
TARGET 8 Vegetation
Not only do you need to maintain and use the most flame-resistant materials in your home, but you should be concerned about vegetation as well. “The most important thing that you can do to help your local firefighters to protect your home is to properly clear the brush located around the perimeter of your home,” said P. Michael Freeman, County of Los Angeles Fire Chief, in a letter posted on the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s website.
• Make a vegetation management plan—this includes making certain your plants are watered and pruned.
• Create decorative pathways with stone to break up plant groups and make a “hardscape” that is less flammable.
• Replace patches of landscape with rock gardens or fire resistant mulches.
• Make certain your vegetation isn’t too near your home, as to allow fire to transfer from the plant to the house. You don’t want to have plants adjacent to your siding, under vents or eaves, or under or near your deck.
• Keep your home free of fuels (dry leaves, grass, or dry vegetation touching your home).
• Clear vegetation from underneath your deck.
• Keep trees trimmed at least 10 feet from your chimney. Remove dead limbs hanging over your home.
David Bloom, Public Information assistant for the Los Angeles County Fire Department tells American Survival Guide that you can find all these tips on the LAFD’s website. The link will be in the upper left-hand corner.
MAKE AN EMERGENCY SUPPLY KIT
It’s critical to have an emergency supply kit on hand. This may include the following:
• At least three days’ worth of water for each family member to drink and for personal hygiene
• Change of clothing
• Blanket or sleeping bag
• First aid kit
• Battery-powered radio (Most emergency radios operate on multiple types of power)
• Rugged footwear, work gloves and eye protection
Remember to face your car outward so you have the best visibility when you need to leave.
Always obey directions from law enforcement and emergency response personnel.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.