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How to fortify and protect your home against wildfires

Man cleaning dead leaves from rain gutters | DreamPictures/VStock/Getty Images
Man cleaning dead leaves from rain gutters | DreamPictures/VStock/Getty Images

DreamPictures/VStock/Getty Images

As Americans have seen from California to Tennessee, wildfire seasons can be unpredictable and devastating. About 100,000 wildfires burn millions of acres in the United States every year and destroy homes and other structures in the path of the flames.

If you're in an area where wildfires are a potential danger, you can increase your home's survival odds by taking the proper precautions long before a fire threatens.

"If you compare wildfire to other natural hazards or threats, prevention is the most affordable and achievable (thing to do) because you can do most of it yourself," says Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, or FLASH.

All it takes is an ember -- what experts call a "firebrand" -- to set a home on fire. Homeowners invite flames into their homes when they fail to take simple but important fire prevention measures, such as trimming vegetation and removing leaves, says Steve Quarles, senior scientist at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, or IBHS.

Some fire precautions involve muscle more than money, while others, such as replacing a rustic roof shingled with wood shake, will cost some bucks.

"If you're going to invest money and you have a flammable roof, that would be the place to do it," says Michele Steinberg, a division manager with the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA.

Keep in mind that fire needs fuel, heat and oxygen to survive, she says. You can't do anything about the wind fanning the flames. But here are ways you can limit the fuel supply and otherwise protect your home.

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1. Create a 'defensible space'

Cut, trim and clear tree branches from around the chimney and roof, leaves out of gutters and eaves, and debris and vegetation from under patio decks and next to the house. Greenery can serve as so-called fire bridges or ladders, drawing the flames to or up your house.

In wildfire high-hazard areas, consider the 200 feet extending outward on all sides from the building as the "home ignition zone," according to recommendations from the NFPA.

Officials with FLASH warn on the group's website that you should consider your property at high risk if there are:

  • Lots of pine trees and pine needles.

  • Areas of high palmettos, shrubs and saw grass.

  • Vines and small trees beneath taller trees.

  • Dense shrubbery.

  • A view hindered by dense growth.

Be particularly mindful of the 30 feet directly around your house. Use nonflammable landscaping material -- pebbles instead of mulch, for example. Don't keep woodpiles or propane tanks in this area. Prune trees 6 to 10 feet up from the ground so it's tougher for fire to climb them. Water the lawn and plants regularly.

Consider creating "fuel breaks," such as driveways, paver walkways, rock gardens and cinder block garden walls, which will slow or block a fire's path.

2. Replace a flammable roof

Replacing a roof isn't cheap, but a nonflammable roof that's rated a Class A, B or C by Underwriters Laboratories is a key safeguard against wildfire.

Class A is the most protective, says Steinberg, of NFPA. Class-A roofing includes asphalt fiberglass composition shingles, clay or concrete tiles, and steel or copper, according to IBHS.

You may not even need a Class-A roof. You can increase the rating of a Class-B or Class-C roof by using fire-resistant underlayment material.

Consider making sure that anything attached to the roof also is noncombustible. A dormer with combustible siding, for example, can affect your noncombustible roof, says Quarles.

3. Box or screen eaves, soffits and vents

Embers can enter the house through open eaves and vents on exterior walls, or near the roofline and foundation. Cover those with a one-eighth-inch metal screen or temporarily seal them when fire threatens.

If you opt for sealing, use half-inch plywood, and pre-install the hardware to save time when a fire may approach, advises IBHS.

Be sure to keep the screens free of leaves and debris.

4. Install fire-resistant windows and siding

Replace single-pane windows with dual-pane tempered glass. Dual panes are two sheets of glass with space between them.

Single-pane windows are more susceptible to breakage from exposure to a wildfire's heat.

Can't afford new windows? Consider metal window screens, shutters (especially if you live in an area prone to both hurricanes and wildfires) or half-inch plywood covers. Install the anchors and pre-size the covers before fire threatens.

IBHS recommends fire-resistant material for exterior walls, such as:

  • Cement

  • Plaster

  • Stucco

  • Masonry (concrete, stone, brick or block)

Vinyl siding doesn't easily ignite but can melt in high heat.

5. Help the firefighters

Make sure your street name and house number are clearly visible to emergency crews. Driveways should be at least 12 feet wide with a vertical clearance of at least 15 feet to allow easy access by fire trucks, FLASH advises.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says you should know the locations of your outside water sources, such as hydrants, ponds, cisterns, wells and swimming pools. Have a garden hose long enough to reach around the house and other structures on your property to douse wildfire flames.

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