Throughout the past few decades, wildfires have caused devastating damage to widespread regions. In June 2017, wildfires ravaged five states, aided by gusty winds and scorching summer temperatures. Your home doesn’t have to be nestled near the woods to be at risk of damage from wildfires and forest fires; out-of-control fires fueled by the “perfect storm” of weather conditions can wreak havoc on wilderness and homes spread across hundreds of miles.
Every homeowner should have a homeowners insurance policy; in fact, if you have a mortgage on your home, your lender requires it. Depending on where you live and the common risks in your location, you may be required to have supplemental policies or riders. If you live in a flood zone, for instance, your lender may require you to have flood insurance. Most homeowner’s insurance policies cover damages resulting from fires, but not all policies offer the same coverage. That means it’s up to you to shop around and choose the best policy that protects your family’s interests.
Homeowners insurance may provide peace of mind, but a wildfire that destroys your home will also destroy belongings that are irreplaceable, including family photos, heirlooms, or other items that have sentimental value. In addition to having adequate insurance, you should also take precautions to protect your home from forest fires. Here are five steps you can take to start protecting your home today.
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Step 1: Get Fire Insurance
Your homeowners insurance covers damages from fires. You may think whatever standard coverage your insurance company offers is enough, but do you know exactly what your policy covers? FreeAdvice Legal explains that fire insurance policies typically have four coverage areas:
- The primary dwelling (your house).
- Other structures, such as sheds, swimming pools, pool houses, or detached garages.
- Personal property, or your personal belongings, such as clothes, furniture, jewelry, paintings, and other items that aren’t part of the dwelling. Belongings that have not been valued and are not specifically listed in the policy are typically covered based on a standard value, which may be substantially less than the actual value. It’s worth getting your heirloom jewelry, cherished paintings, and other valuables appraised and making sure they’re listed in your policy.
- Loss of use or additional living expenses. This coverage area includes expenses such as a stay in a hotel (and boarding fees for your pets) while your home is repaired or rebuilt, clothing, food, and other typical costs of living. Keep track of your expenses during this time, but keep in mind that your policy may have a ceiling on the amount of coverage provided.
It’s a good idea to take an inventory of your home and belongings now, before it’s too late and you’re faced with damages from a forest fire or other disaster. Keep a copy in a secure location, such as a safety deposit box. If you find items of value over the standard insurance company values, talk to your agent about getting additional coverage.
Step 2: Clear Combustible Debris from Your Property
Treating, clearing, or reducing natural and man-made fuels to slow the spread of fire is known as creating defensible space. Creating ample defensible space reduces the likelihood that a fire on your property will spread to the forest or other homes surrounding your home.
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Keep dry grass, stacks of firewood, brush, and other combustible debris at least 30 feet away from your home; that distance should be increased to 50 feet if you live in a heavily wooded area, and 100 feet if you live in California or if your home is on a hillside. If you live in an area particularly prone to forest fires or wildfires, you should also consider removing or replacing wooden fences and decks – or at least treating them to reduce the risk.
Step 3: Use Defensible Space Management Zones Wisely
Defensible space can be broken down into three categories:
- Zone 1: The area immediately surrounding your home and other structures.
- Zone 2: A transitional area for fuel reduction between Zone 1 and Zone 3.
- Zone 3: This zone extends from the edge of Zone 2 to your property boundaries, and is the area farthest from your home.
There are certain things you can do in these zones to protect your home from forest fires and even direct the spread of fire around your home, such as:
- Introduce more native vegetation.
- Use non-flammable ground cover in the area surrounding your home, but leaving about five feet of space clear around your house and deck.
- Keep trees spaced at least 10 feet apart.
- Keep your trees and shrubs pruned, and immediately remove dead or dying trees, bushes, and branches from your defensible space.
- Keep branches trimmed so that they don’t extend over your roof or near your chimney.
- Clean your roof, gutters, and eaves regularly to free them of debris.
- If you have pine trees on your property, keep your lawn free of needles by cleaning them up regularly (yes, this is a monumental task).
- Store all flammable liquids only in approved metal cans.
- Store firewood and storage tanks a minimum of 50 feet away from your home. Keep an area of at least 10 feet surrounding them clear.
- Regularly maintain your irrigation system.
- Avoid using the space under your deck for storage, particularly for things like lawn mowers and fuel.
Step 4: Reduce Structural Ignitability
Minimizing structural ignitability is best achieved during the home design and building process. Fortunately, there are some ways you can reduce structural ignitability in an existing home as well. If you’re replacing your roof, choose a fire-resistant roofing material (with a Class C rating or higher), particularly if your home is situated near grasslands, forests, or in a wooded area. If you’re building a home or giving your home’s exterior a fresh look, avoid materials such as wood or shake shingles, which are flammable.
For windows, doors, glass, and other building products, there are also safer options. This resource from Colorado State Forest Service provides more information on site design and building materials that can reduce your risks, including detailed information on the fire-spread classification of building materials. Generally, building materials are classified in three flame-spread categories, including:
- Class A or Class I: These products have a flame-spread index of 25 or less, such as fire-retardant treated wood.
- Class B or Class II: These products have a flame-spread index of 26 to 75. Some untreated lumber falls into this category.
- Class C or Class III: These products have a flame-spread index of 76 to 200. Most untreated lumber and plywood falls under Class C.
Roofing materials are also classified as Class A, B, or C; however, the flame-spread ratings do not correlate across products. A Class C roofing system is actually considered fire-resistant, while Class C lumber is not. For roofing materials, Class A is the highest fire classification.
Other steps you can take to reduce structural ignitability include:
- Installing spark arresters in your chimneys.
- Applying non-combustible screening to vent and eave openings.
- Using fire-resistant materials to cover the exterior of your home, such as stucco, brick, or stone. Use a low- or non-flammable underlayment, if possible.
- Opting for tempered or double-paned glass for windows.
- Installing non-combustible shutters and replace window coverings with heat-resistant options.
- Enclosing the underside of decks with fire-resistant materials.
- Using treated wood or another flame-resistant material to box in eaves, soffits, fascias, and subfloors to reduce vent sizes.
The takeaway is that it’s important to learn the building codes for your local area to understand what materials you can use to build or improve your home, and be diligent about choosing materials with a low flame-spread index.
Step 5: Create a Disaster Plan
Even if you’ve taken every possible precaution to safeguard your home from forest fires, there is still a chance that your home could succumb to flames. That’s why your family should be prepared with an evacuation plan. Identify multiple escape routes from your home, ensuring that there are at least two possible escape routes from every bedroom, if possible.
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Select a meeting location for all family members to meet after escaping from the property. This meeting location should be at a sufficient distance to keep everyone safe from the fire, but not so far away that it’s difficult for family members to get to in a panic.
You should also prepare an emergency kit containing first aid supplies and essentials to get your family through a few days, including:
- A battery-powered NOAA weather radio
- Extra batteries
- A cell phone charger and/or portable power bank
- A flashlight
- Bottled water (3 gallons per person)
- Prescription medications (enough to last for 2-3 days)
- Non-perishable food (3-day supply)
- Medical supplies (enough to last for 2-3 days)
- Cash and credit cards
- Copies of important documents
- A change of clothing
- An extra pair of eyeglasses and/or contact lenses
- A spare set of keys to your vehicles and house
Having an extra kit to store in the trunk of your car can be a lifeline in an emergency.
It’s not enough to have an escape plan to get out of your home safely. In the event of a wildfire, you’ll likely need to evacuate the area entirely. Find out what the evacuation routes are from your local authorities, map them out, and ensure that all family members are aware of the designated routes. It’s not uncommon for roads to be closed or impassible, so you should plan several alternative routes. Have a plan for getting in contact with other family members once you’re safe in the event that you become separated.
Additional Resources on Forest Fire Safety for Homeowners
You can never be too prepared to keep your home and family safe. Consult the following resources for more information and advice on forest fire and wildfire preparedness:
ReadyforWildfire.org is a comprehensive website offering a multitude of resources for families and homeowners, including tips for hardening your home against fires, how to properly and safely burn debris, and more.
Survivalist Prepper outlines some important tips for creating a defensible space and optimizing your defensible safe zones.
My Land Plan explains what conditions are ideal for wildfires, why they occur, and how to fire-proof your woods.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers an abundance of resources on wildfire safety and prevention, as well as general fire safety resources.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a handy checklist on avoiding wildfire damage for homeowners.
This informative guide from the California Chaparral Institute explains how and why most homes burn from flying embers, and how to use this knowledge to better protect your home.
The California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (Cal Fire) also provides a useful checklist for homeowners with tips and strategies for protecting every square inch of your home, inside and out.
Forest fires and wildfires pose a serious risk for homeowners and their families. By being proactive about fire safety and taking steps to fire-proof your home, you’ll help to ensure your family’s safety in the event of a nearby forest fire or spreading wildfire.