Protect Your Home From Wildland Fires

By Sherri Butterfield

Among the ten worst wildland fires in U.S. history (as listed in June 2016 by the National Fire Protection Association and measured by property loss), one occurred in Florida, one in Minnesota, and one in New Mexico. The other seven burned their way through brush, trees, and homes in California. Low humidity, higher-than-normal temperatures, unrelenting winds, irregular terrain, and tinder-dry vegetation have made much of the Golden State especially vulnerable to the ravages of wildland fires.

This year, fire season got off to a frighteningly destructive start. During July and August, the fastmoving Carr fire near Redding charred more than 229,000 acres, and Idyllwild’s Cranston fire consumed 13,000 acres. Parts of Yosemite National Park remained closed through early August while fire crews battled the 96,000-acre Ferguson fire. And the Mendocino Complex fire burned more than 350,000 acres to surpass the 2017 Thomas fire and become the biggest burn in state history.

Closer to home, Orange County residents watched anxiously for two weeks as firefighters battled the Holy fire. This blaze, which began in Holy Jim Canyon on August 6, climbed over the Santa Ana Mountains into the foothills above the Riverside County community of Lake Elsinore, burning across 23,000 acres. A ground crew of more than one thousand firefighters was aided in its battle against this stubborn blaze by a relentless aerial assault in which twelve planes and fourteen helicopters pounded the flames with both retardant and water.

Create a defensible space. Fires need three things to burn: heat, oxygen, and fuel. Thus, preventing fires—or minimizing their damage—involves controlling at least one of these elements. While you have little control over either air temperature or oxygen, you can clean up your property and modify your landscaping to reduce the amount of fuel that is available to feed approaching flames.

In January 2005, a new state law extended the defensible space clearance around homes and structures from thirty feet to one hundred feet. Proper clearance to one hundred feet provides for firefighter safety when protecting homes and dramatically increases the chance that a home will survive during a wildland fire. If you have not prepared your property to better withstand fire’s challenge, now is the time to do so.

Remove loose debris. Remove all dead plants, grass, and weeds. Rake up dry leaves and needles that have fallen from trees. Check your home’s roof, rain gutters, and balconies, and remove any leaves, needles, or other debris that has collected there.

Evaluate your landscaping. Remove plants that have peeling bark, needle-like leaves, are tight branching, or contain oils or resins. As replacements, select varieties that are drought-tolerant and less flammable. When you replant, increase horizontal spacing, especially between shrubs and trees, so that shrubs do not act as a vertical fire ladder.

Thin and trim trees. Have dead trees and tree limbs removed. Pay special attention to palm trees and pine trees. Trim palm trees to remove all dead fronds. If pines are brown, cut them down. Keep tree branches ten feet away from your chimney and from other trees.

Harden your home. As you remodel and replace, think in terms of increasing your home’s resistance to fire. All building materials will burn, but some burn at much higher temperatures than others and so can resist the heat of approaching flames much longer. Give yourself—and your home—the benefit of this resistance.

When you reroof your home or recover your patio, use noncombustible materials. When you replace single-paned windows, use dual-paned windows made of tempered glass. And because embers from a large fire have been known to travel as far as five blocks, prevent them from entering your home by boxing in your eaves and making sure that the mesh screening on your vents is in good condition.