Article by Rachel Perez
Forest fires are among the most destructive forces in nature. In recent decades, unfortunately, wildfires have become more common and more devouring. In the past 15 years alone, almost 90,000 books were burned by forest fires.
When building in areas prone to wildfires, preparation and forethought will help prevent even more structures from succumbing to flames. From fire-resistant materials to home defense strategies, here are four ways to build and prepare for wildfires.
Any patch of dry grass or vegetation can catch fire under the right conditions. A fire must burn at least 10 acres to be considered significant. In most of the country, this usually occurs west of the Rocky Mountains. The most common states with wildfire potential are:
- Northwest Utah
- Northern Nevada
- Southern and Western Arizona
- Southern New Mexico
California is the true epicenter of US wildfire destruction. In 2020 alone, 40% of all burned area was in California. This statistic is even grimmer when you consider that humans have caused 95% of these fires. Trash burning and arson are still major causes, but illegal campfires are by far the biggest culprits of large fires in California.
With persistent drought conditions with no end in sight, these areas are still highly prone to fires. Thus, wildfire safety often begins with assessing weather conditions and other vital factors.
Factors that cause forest fires
Fire does not spring out of nowhere. For a forest fire to start, it must start with a spark. This spark can come from several means. And while humans are often to blame, that’s not always the case.
Combine people and fire, and there is always a risk of destruction in fire-prone areas. Campfires are often permitted in specific areas and in specially designated fire pits. On certain days, such as when there are high winds or in the midst of a drought, any type of burning may become illegal.
Yet that doesn’t always stop people. As noted above, illegal campfires were responsible for nearly all of California’s fires. This included over 17,000 structures destroyed due to illegal camping behavior.
Camping isn’t the only human behavior that can cause wildfires. A lit cigarette can turn into a fire in moments. Same gender reveal party smoke bombs can unleash a firestorm under perfect conditions.
Weather plays an important role in the formation of any fire. Uncontrolled wildfires are rare in areas that receive regular rainfall. However, a sudden storm in a fire-prone area can lead to an upsurge in fires, as lightning strikes ignite dry vegetation into a full blown fire.
Strong winds and low humidity are other crucial factors for the development of forest fires. Stronger winds fan the flames and carry embers over the lines of fire. Fast winds will push flames towards the ground, increasing the likelihood of vegetation igniting. Similarly, the drier the air and vegetation, the easier it is to catch fire.
If you live in an area prone to wildfires, you need to take precautions to protect your property. Build your buildings from fire resistant materials is crucial, but equally important is keeping your property ready for the next fire.
Use flame retardant and fire resistant materials
Building homes from fireproof materials from scratch is smart if you have the money. One can also retrofit a building with fireproof and fire resistant materials. If cost is a limiting factor, use these materials in weaker areas of the house. These include:
- Rooftops : Roofs are great areas for catching embers and other burning materials. To fight fires, use class A fireproof materials. These include slate tiles, sheet metal or terracotta and concrete masonry. Anything less has a chance of sustaining fire.
- Bridges: Decks are often massive wooden structures ready for combustion. In addition, they serve as storage areas for other combustible materials, such as firewood or accelerators. Build decks of fire-retardant composite panels or specially treated fire-retardant wood.
- Walls: Interior materials are equally crucial in fighting fires. Fireproof materials for interior walls include drywall, brick, and stucco. ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) concrete walls are expanded polystyrene bricks. These are fire resistant for up to four hours, preventing the fire from spreading further.
- The Windows: High heat can break glass. This allows flames and embers to enter the house. To prevent this, fire shutters can cover the entire window. Or replace windows with double-glazed models to provide an extra layer of protection.
Remove fire-prone elements
Always keep fire prone areas away from your home. To be on the safe side, remove:
- Wooden piles: Whether it’s for a fireplace or outdoor fire pits, keep piles of wood and logs away from your home.
- Trees, shrubs and vegetation: Even green foliage will burn under a forest fire. The immense heat will dry out vegetation and turn them into prime fuel sources. To ensure the safety of your home, do not allow any trees, shrubs or other vegetation to grow around the house.
- Accelerators: Never store flammable liquids near the house. This includes fuels, oils, torch oils, vehicle fluids, or any other material that could support a fire.
- Fencing: A wooden fence near the house will allow the flames to cross the lines of fire.
Prepare for wildfires
Once you have cleared all fire-prone objects around your home, you need to prepare the property for wildfires. To do this, identify your defensible areas and risk areas.
Defending a home against a wildfire starts with the property itself. By dividing it into three defense zones, a homeowner has a better chance of saving their home. These areas are:
- area 0: Located 0-5 feet from the house, this zone is also known as the ember resistant zone. There should be no vegetation in this area. In all respects, this area should be bare, free of outdoor furniture, long grass and other debris. This area also includes the house itself, so make sure the gutters and roof are free of flammable debris.
- area 1: The lean, celan and green zone; this space is 5 to 30 feet from the house. Zone 1 includes gardens and courtyards. Prune all trees at least 10 feet from other trees. Any vegetation other than clipped grass must also be fire resistant.
- area 2: Also known as the fuel reduction zone, this is the area between 30 and 100 feet from your home. Strategically plant vegetation to keep flames low to reduce spread. Keep grass trimmed to 4 inches or less. Prune all trees so that the branches are at least 6 feet above the ground. There should also be at least 6 feet between shrubs and trees.
High risk areas
Focusing on defense zones can help a home withstand an impending wildfire. To increase the odds, pay special attention to high-risk areas.
Roofs can catch embers and other flaming debris. During an active fire, it may be a good idea to constantly monitor the roof and remove burning objects as soon as they appear. Likewise, soak your deck (if possible) to reduce the risk of combustion. Finally, consider using a sprinkler system to keep surfaces wet throughout the property.
Keep an up-to-date home prep checklist
Preparation is often the best defense against wildfires. In the heat of the moment, crucial information can slip through your mind. Therefore, having a easily accessible checklist can make all the difference.
The checklist has three columns of focus: preparation and planning, inside the house, and outside the house. Important control items on the list include:
- Stay up to date on active fire conditions.
- Prepare an emergency kit and prepare an evacuation plan.
- Half-yearly sweeping for more protection.
- Create up-to-date visual records of your assets for insurance purposes.
In addition to a checklist, wildfire drills can help highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your wildfire plan. If you have children, make sure they understand their jobs during a wildfire. Staying prepared will help keep everyone safe.
For those living in wildfire areas, there is a high probability of encountering a wildfire that threatens your home and property. Careful preparations can help save your home and keep your family safe.
Remember to use fire retardants around the house to replace combustible materials. Keep areas around the house free of fuel sources and make sure the family knows what to do during a wildfire. With flame retardant materials and a smart plan, everyone can stay safe and protected from fires.