Randy Fleuriet understands the frightening possibility of losing a home to wildfire. A few years ago, he and his wife Gerry watched billowing smoke and flames as the Missionary Ridge wildfire crept close to their log home in southwestern Colorado. They could feel the heat behind the mountain, and they watched as the blue sky turned orange and filled with smoke. At night, from their front porch, they saw a neighboring mountain engulfed in fire and heard the frequent explosions as trees succumbed to the raging inferno. “Then, our vast area suddenly closed in. It was as though the whole world had shut down,” recalls Randy.
Electrical and telephone poles burned down, shutting off power to their home and well. When the smoke turned dangerously thick and authorities ordered an evacuation, Randy and Gerry escaped to a small town 20 miles away to wait out the blaze.
Finally, after the wildfire passed, they returned. Luckily, they found their home was intact, but two houses just 100 yards away were totally destroyed. Whether your log home is in a forest like the Fleuriets’, in a neighborhood with a woodsy setting or simply surrounded by open range, it could be at risk of damage from wildfire.
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to protect your home, from using fire-resistant building materials to practicing fire-safe landscaping techniques.
Fortress Against Fire
Burning embers landing on wood shingle or wood shake roofs has destroyed hundreds of homes. If you already have a wood roof, you can reduce the danger by treating it with fire-retardant materials. Fire department authorities say that some products provide a high degree of fire resistance. However, long-term protection isn’t guaranteed, and you may have to re-treat the wood periodically.If you’re building a new home or are ready to replace an existing roof, consider non-combustible or fire-resistant materials, such as Class-A asphalt shingles, metal, cement and concrete products, or terra-cotta tiles.
Double-pane windows, with insulating air between the panes, fare better than single panes, which often break from rapid temperature changes during a fire, or from airborne burning objects striking them. Tempered glass is a better choice than plate glass, especially for large picture windows. Also, smaller panes hold up better than large ones.
Vents around the attic, under the eaves and under floors are other entry points for hot embers. To prevent sparks from entering your home, cover vents with wire mesh screens no larger than one-eighth inch square.
Your Outdoor Space
Keep gutters, eaves and roof clear of leaves and other debris, particularly dry needles. Sweep these areas often during the fire season. Observe where leaves collect in your yard; those are the same places that wind will carry burning embers.
A wooden fence can act as a fuse leading right to your home. To lessen fire danger, don’t attach a wood fence directly to your house. Instead, attach it to a cement pillar, a section of wire fence or a gate.
Decks and porches
A wood patio deck or porch can be a hazard especially if you allow combustible materials and debris to accumulate beneath it. Don’t keep flammable materials, such as firewood, under your porch or deck. And install wire mesh one-eighth inch square or less from the overhangs to the ground to prevent flammable and burning material from getting under your deck or porch.
Make sure your storage tank is at least 10 feet from the house-the farther away the better. Keep the tank area clear of brush and wood products, and ensure that the tank is regularly serviced.
Other combustible materials
Keep woodpiles and other combustible materials well away from the house. And if a wildfire is approaching, Randy suggests you “do in advance what firefighters do when they get there: toss everything that will burn away from the house, such as lawn furniture, woodpiles and decking.” One house in his area was saved because the owner had someone cut down all the trees around his home just days before the fire reached the neighborhood.
Fight Fire with Landscaping
Create a safety zone around your home. Remove anything that can easily burn, including dense or dry vegetation, tall grass and lumber scraps, to a distance at least 30 feet away. If the land slopes away from your house, the distance should be 100 feet, and if vegetation is dense, make it 200 feet. Get rid of dead vegetation, particularly any material close to the house.
Shrubs and trees are fine in your yard if they are well-spaced, watered and properly pruned of dead or low-hanging limbs. Canopies on trees within 30 to 50 feet of a home should be at least 15 feet apart from each other, and overhanging branches should be 10 feet away from your chimney. Also make sure there are no tree limbs hanging over your garage or over power lines. Avoid planting pines and junipers near your home. They are particularly quick to ignite.
Some plants, such as succulents, are fire-resistant and can actually slow a fire. In Southern California, for instance, ivy geranium, thyme, capeweed and carpet bugle are excellent choices to place near homes, while scotch broom acts like conduit when the air is dry. Many species of acacia and eucalyptus are quite flammable because of their oils and resins. Check with your state’s cooperative extension office for information on fire-fighting plants that grow well in your region.
In the limited time available during a fire, firefighters have to be selective about which homes they try to save, says Tom Fields, the fire chief in Camano Island, Washington. Most wildfire-fighters practice the triage system, fighting first for the homes that can be saved without unnecessary risk to fire personnel. If forced to make a choice, they’re less likely to take on a home where the driveway is too narrow or steep for a quick getaway or where tree branches hang over the driveway, or where combustible brush is too close to the house.
The Fleuriets’ home is well-situated, and that’s one of the things that saved it. Firefighters had clear access on the gravel road leading to the home. They bypassed homes located on winding roads where fire might have trapped workers and equipment.
To make sure your home lands high on the triage list, evaluate potential hazards and minimize or eliminate them. A home’s chances for survival can be greatly improved with planning, design and landscaping. The swiftness of wildfire threatens any home in its path. It doesn’t take a miracle to survive a wildfire; it takes putting into practice firewise, common-sense procedures.