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Wildfires near me? Follow these safety tips for homeowners

Expert wildfire safety tips for homeowners

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We hear about the effects of wildfires in places like California every year, but the fact is, every geographic region in the U.S., including Hawai’i and Alaska, are prone to wildfires. And, while the typical high season for wildfires is generally May through October, if the conditions are right, a wildfire could strike a susceptible area at any time (as the result of especially dry or windy conditions coupled with factors such as lightning strikes or human activity).

To find out if you live in an area that’s susceptible to wildfires, this map of national fire zones and fire activity, created by the government’s National Interagency Fire Center is a great resource to find out your proximity to a fire zone.

As the traditional fire season approaches, there are steps you can take to prepare your home for a wildfire, including ways to make the exterior and roof of your home more fire resistant, and how to create an emergency evacuation plan.

One of the most crucial steps you can take to prevent your home from catching fire amid a blaze is to remove these combustible materials from the areas in and around your house.

The key to wildfire safety is your yard

An illustration of a home and yard with different zones measured out

The Home Ignition Zone consists of all the defensible space around the perimeter of your home and consists of the 100-foot buffer of defensible space surrounding a home.

Unlike securing your home from indoor fire hazards by keeping electrical wiring up to code and storing flammable liquids and containers away from heat sources, wildfire-proofing your home takes place almost exclusively around the exterior of your home.

To do so, it may require some retrofitting if your home was constructed prior to the introduction and widespread availability of certain non-combustible materials, but for now we’ll focus on tactics you can do yourself to keep your house safe without making major renovations.

The “home ignition zone” is a term you may be unfamiliar with, but it will help you to understand how to make your home safer during a wildfire. The home ignition zone consists of all the defensible space around the perimeter of your home and consists of the 100-foot buffer of defensible space surrounding a home.

Per the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, “A fire safe landscape consists of two zones: the home defense zone and the reduced fuel zone. The home defense zone is within 30 feet of the house. The reduced fuel zone lies beyond the home defense zone and extends out at least 100 feet from the house or to your property line.”

Within the home defense zone is a subzone in the area measured between 0 to 5 feet of the home, called the noncombustible zone, and this is, perhaps, the most key to securing your home, as anything within this zone that might provide fuel from an approaching fire will very likely end up causing your home to ignite as well.

Don’t overlook these wildfire hazards around the perimeter of your home

To ensure that you’re not unwittingly adding literal fuel to a fire, here are a few items to recognize as wildfire hazards around the perimeter of your home.

Keep wicker or other combustible furniture materials far from your house

Wicker daybed with white cushions outdoors.
Credit: Getty Images / olegbreslavtsev

Patio staples like natural fiber doormats, screens, and wicker furniture are considered highly flammable.

If you’ve ever seen the horror film The Wicker Man, (I’ve seen both versions, I’ll save my strong opinions on them for a more appropriate time), you’re familiar with just how quickly wicker burns.

When it comes to patio or yard furniture in a fire zone, it’s essential that you keep all furniture—but especially that made from wicker or untreated wood—far from your home, because it could easily ignite and help the flame travel.

If you have a deck or patio that’s attached to your home, this is especially important.

Opt for rock mulch over wood chips

Rock mulch in landscaped yard outdoors.
Credit: Getty Images / Bespalyi

Rocks are a safe choice when landscaping and will act as a mini barrier for your home.

Mulch and wood chips might create a nice looking landscape in your yard, but these materials are also ideal fuel for a wildfire. As an alternative in your garden, rock mulch is a safer, non-combustible choice.

Keep your gutters clear of debris

Person on ladder cleaning leaves out of dirty gutter outdoors.
Credit: Getty Images / Highwaystarz-Photography

Dried up leaves, branches, and other waste can be an easy source of ignition.

To keep your home safe from wildfire embers, which tend to fly through the air and land on homes, keep your gutters clear of leaves and other debris that can catch fire and quickly spread flame.

While cleaning your gutters can be a tedious chore, it’s easier if you keep up with it regularly. You can also use gutter guards, which help keep debris out of the way entirely.

California Fire Science Consortium coordinator Stacey Sargent Frederick says that these small pieces of debris and yard waste are considered fine fuels.

“If an ember landed on that, [which] is really receptive to an ember, it might catch and carry it to the home.”

Landscape with intention

Person removing shrubs from area next to wooden deck and fence.
Credit: Getty Images / Warchi

Although they may look aesthetically pleasing, placing bushes, shrubs and similar vegetation close together isn't wise if you live in a fire zone.

When it comes to landscaping in a fire zone, the issue is not just where to plant, but what to plant. As a general rule of thumb, you should remove any shrubs, bushes, and trees from the area within 10 feet of the home. Never plant anything under vents, eaves, or your deck, as embers can get pulled into small spaces and ignite them from the inside.

In addition, make sure any overhanging tree branches near your home are regularly pruned, and consider creating islands or groups of plants rather than a line of vegetation, so fire will not be able to travel continuously if ignited.

Conifers in particular are not recommended near the home, as they have a lower moisture content and are highly resinous, and therefore more flammable. (Plants with oils, waxes and resins are generally more hazardous.)

Instead, it’s recommended to plant low-growing herbaceous (non-woody) plants, or simply maintain a well-irrigated lawn. The most important thing to remember though, is that any plant can become a fire hazard if it hasn’t been cared for and kept well-watered and moist, or accumulates dead, dry leaves around it.

Yard waste and dead vegetation

We all have chores that we’ll eventually get to, like bringing our yard waste bag to the dump, or tossing old firewood, but it’s crucial to remove these items from your yard as wildfire season approaches to avoid them becoming fuel.

If you keep firewood near your home for regular use, make sure it’s stored at least 30 feet from the home.

Steps to take as a homeowner living in a wildfire zone

Keep your shed at a safe distance

Wooden gazebo in backyard next to wooded forest area.
Credit: Getty Images / laughingmango

Alongside sheds and other larger structures in your yard, gazebos should not be placed in very close proximity to your home.

It’s perfectly fine to have a shed or outbuilding on your property in a fire zone, but, like your firewood, make sure it’s at least 30 feet from your home.

The same goes for recreational structures like swing sets and gazebos.

Create fuel breaks

If a fire encounters a noncombustible material like concrete or stone, it’s less likely to be able to travel.

Creating a fuel break, such as a concrete, gravel, or stone walkway or driveway between areas of vegetation and your home is a helpful way to prevent fire from approaching your home.

Consider using metal instead of wood

While wood fencing, arbors, and pergolas offer a nice aesthetic, in fire zones they create a problem, especially because fencing in particular can often abut a home.

This means that if a fence that touches a home catches fire, it’s only a matter of time before the home itself is likely to ignite.

You don’t have to do away with wood completely, but you can consider replacing a few lengths of fencing closest to your home with metal so the home doesn’t come in direct contact with the wood fencing.

Close your window blinds

Tan, faux wooden blinds in front of window
Credit: Getty Images / whyframestudio

In front of double-paned glass windows, blinds can be one of the last barriers to stop a wildfire from entering your home.

One of the most crucial ways to keep a wildfire out of your home is to secure your windows and vents to prevent embers from entering your home. However, radiant heat can also cause your home to ignite.

Sargent Frederick explains that while the kind of windows installed in your home are important (specifically, consumers should look for double-paned glass and a frame that can withstand high temperatures), closing your blinds in an emergency situation before you evacuate can help create a heat barrier.

She says, “If you have time, and it makes sense to quickly close blinds, it could be one extra layer” and can create an additional barrier against dangerous radiant heat.

The greatest hazards of wildfires is their unpredictable path and their ability to travel by air; one of the most common ways for a wildfire to attack a home is by embers carried on the wind. This is why it’s essential to keep so many areas around the exterior of your home secure since a flying ember can land anywhere.

By addressing these risk factors, you’ll be one step ahead of the flame.

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