How to Prepare Your Home for a Wildfire
Fire Weather Watch
If a fire weather watch has been issued, then weather that would enable a wildfire is possible over the next 12 to 72 hours. Turn on your TV and/or radio to listen for updates, or keep your phone handy and turned on if you have an emergency alert app. Be aware that the power might go out, so you need a way to stay informed regardless. Be prepared to evacuate if a wildfire is spotted. Research and learn your evacuation routes in advance, and share your planned routes with family and friends. Keep your phone charged, your car fueled, some cash on hand, and keep emergency supplies, medications, important documents, and a change of clothes in your car. If an evacuation order is issued, evacuate immediately.
If a fire weather watch has been issued, do not park vehicles in dry, tall grass, as the exhaust may be hot enough to ignite grass. If you spot a wildfire approaching and have not received evacuation orders yet, call 911. If you or someone with you has been burned, call 911 or otherwise seek help immediately. To reduce chance of infection or further injury, cover burns and try to keep them cool.
Well Before Wildfire Season
The exact timing, length, and peak of wildfire season differs between states. Know your wildfire risk. Be aware that wildfires can occur throughout the year, even outside of wildfire season. Wildfires can occur anywhere in the country, although some areas are more prone to fires than others.
If you’re building or renovating a property, make sure to use fire resistance materials. If you are replacing your roof, use Class A roof material, slate, tile, or other materials, or Class B pressured-treated shakes and shingles. Wood should be treated with fire-retardant chemicals. Use fire resistant materials for features in your yard, such as a garden bench or shed. Make certain that the driveway and any access roads are wide enough for emergency vehicles to enter and are clear of debris and flammable vegetation. The entrance to your property should be marked with address signs clearly visible from the road.
Install dual sensor smoke alarms (that test for smoke and carbon monoxide) on every level of your house. Test the smoke alarms at least once a month, and change the batteries every six months – one trick to remember timing is to do it in the spring and fall, when we turn our clocks forward or backward an hour for daylight savings time. Most smoke alarms will start beeping when they are low on battery. Keep spare batteries for the alarm so that you can change them quickly and easily.
Install fire sprinklers throughout your property to help suppress any fires. Install spark arrestors in chimneys and stovepipes. Have your chimneys inspected and cleaned by a certified technician at least once a year. If possible, install multi-pane or safety glass on all windows. Install fireproof shutters on large windows and glass doors to protect them from radiant heat.
Check your local building codes. Local authorities might have further guidelines specific to different areas for renovating your home to be resistant to damage from natural disasters.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends maintaining an area up to 200 feet around your home, maintaining the levels of flammable vegetation and materials within it. Even if you do not have a large property, there are steps you can take to minimize fire risk.
- Remove vines from the exterior of the house.
- Move shrubs and other plants away from the side of the house.
- Prune branches and shrubs within 15 feet of chimneys and stovepipes.
- For tall trees, remove tree limbs that are within 15 feet of the ground. Ask the power company to remove any branches that are within 15 feet of a power line.
- Store easily portable flammable objects, such as outdoor furniture cushions and brooms, when not in use.
- Prepare and maintain an area at least roughly 30 feet around your home that is free of any combustible or flammable objects, such as brush, wood piles, dried leaves, trees, and newspapers.
- Store any combustible or flammable materials in approved, fire-resistant safety containers well away from the house.
- Fire travels more quickly up a hill. If your home is on a hill, extend the cleared zone downhill. The steeper the slope, the more open space you will need to protect your home.
For gardening, consider practicing firewise landscaping. Replace highly flammable plants such as fir and pine trees with plants more resistant to fire, such as trees with low sap content (e.g. many deciduous species) and moisture-heavy plants (e.g. succulents). The NFPA maintains a list of fire-resistant plants organized by state as part of their Firewise Communities Program.
In a zone 30 to 100 feet from your home, reduce or remove as much highly flammable vegetation as you can. Prune tree limbs that are within 6 to 10 feet of the ground. Create “fuel breaks,” such as pathways, driveways, and lawns. Stack firewood at least 100 feet away from your home. As in the primary 30 foot zone, this zone may need to be expanded downhill.
In a zone 100 to 200 feet from your home, thin vegetation in the underbrush and prune tall trees so that they do not have touching canopies. This will reduce the risk of a crown fire beginning near your home or spreading towards you.
Review your home insurance policy, making sure to keep a list of your home’s contents up to date. Consider storing copies of any important or irreplaceable documents, e.g. birth certificates, tax records, and photographs off-site, such as in a bank safety deposit box or scanned and uploaded online. Only store low-security items such as photographs online. Consider taking thorough photographs of your home and its contents in case you later need to rebuild or file an insurance claim.
Once Wildfire Season Arrives
Keep the roof and gutters clean.
Exercise caution whenever you use fire. Dispose of fireplace ashes and charcoal properly. Never leave outdoor fires unattended. Ensure that all outdoor fires are fully extinguished and cold to the touch, without even embers remaining, before leaving the area. Even small embers can reignite a fire in dry leaves, grass, or wood.
Keep gas grills, fire pits, and propane tanks at least 15 feet away from any structure. Prepare and maintain an area roughly 15 feet around them free of combustible and flammable objects. Do not use the grill or firepit during potentially dangerous weather conditions. Keep a flame extinguisher or hose on hand.
Avoid using equipment such as welders that produces sparks outside on dry, windy days.
Purchase and connect garden hoses long enough to reach any area of your home. Leave the hoses connected to a water source and easily accessible to firefighters when you evacuate. Fill large containers such as garbage cans and tubs with water.
Prepare a family bug-out bag in case you need to evacuate in a hurry. It should contain copies of important documents (e.g. birth certificates, identity documents, insurance policy, medical records, etc., including documents for pets) in a fire- and waterproof container, flashlights, a change of clothes, a first-aid kit, medications, water and non-perishable food, cash in a water-resistant or waterproof container, a change of clothes, a portable crank or solar-powered USB charger for phones (some can double as a radio), and any portable irreplaceable items such as photos. Digital copies of all paperwork and photos can also be kept on a portable flash drive. The bag should be kept either by your door somewhere you will remember it or in your car.
Once a Wildfire Has Been Spotted
If you have been ordered to evacuate, do so immediately. If there is a wildfire or significant danger of a wildfire, but you have not yet been ordered to evacuate, there are steps you can take to aid firefighters.
Turn on all outside and interior lights to make the house more visible in heavy smoke. Close all windows, vents, doors, and fireplace screens to reduce drafts and radiant heat. Disconnect automatic garage door openers so that your garage door can be opened by hand if you lose power. Move flammable furniture, including outdoor and patio furniture, into the center of the home, well away from windows and glass doors. Remove all curtains and other flammable window treatments. Shut off natural gas from the source. Move propane and other fuels well away from the house. Local authorities might have issued additional guidelines that should be followed as well.
If You Are Unable to Evacuate
Call 911, give your location, and explain your situation, including how many people are in the home and if any of your family members need additional assistance. Follow the instructions in the “Once a Wildfire Has Been Spotted” section above. Keep your doors unlocked. Stay inside, well away from exterior walls.
If possible, notify your family of where you are going, or set up a rendezvous point prior to receiving evacuation orders. Roll up windows and close air vents when driving. Avoid driving through heavy smoke if at all possible. Drive slowly with your headlights on. Be alert for other vehicles, pedestrians, and animals. If possible secure pets in carriers as they can become frightened by the smell of smoke. Wild animals will be fleeing the fire and might be more likely to run out in the road than normal.
After a Wildfire
Do not return home until after authorities have said it is safe to do so. Be aware that wildfires can result in flash flooding and mudslides, due to the damage they cause to the landscape.
Maintain a “fire watch” for at least several hours after the fire. Thoroughly check the house, including the roof and attic, for smoke, sparks, hidden embers, and other signs of fire, and recheck regularly.
Exercise caution when entering burned areas. Hazards may still exist. Hot spots can flare up without warning. If a surface is smoldering, do not walk on it. Burned structures might collapse. Burned trees and poles might fall down even well after the fire. Leave immediately if you smell smoke.
When inspecting and cleaning your home, wear leather gloves, heavy-duty and thick-soled work boots, and a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certified respirator (dust mask). You can also wet debris to minimize dust particles that can be breathed in.
Discard any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke, or soot, as it is unlikely to be safe to eat. Do not use water that you suspect has been contaminated to wash hands, wash dishes, prepare food, make baby formula, make ice, or brush teeth. Do not drink water that you suspect has been contaminated.
Photograph any and all damage to your property for insurance purposes.