Now that we’re heading into a particularly active fire season, it’s a good time for a refresher on how to help protect your home against these natural disasters. Of course, a lot of this is preparation that needs to be done well before a fire hits, but there are some steps you can take immediately prior to evacuating (if you have time) to help minimise damage to your home and property. Here’s what you need to know about both last-minute and long-term protection from fires.
Last-minute preparation before evacuation
First of all, if you’re instructed to evacuate immediately, evacuate immediately. Of course you want to protect your home, but it’s not worth putting anyone’s life in danger. But if you are given some warning and have time to prepare your home before you evacuate, here are a few things you can do to potentially minimise damage, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).
Inside the house
- Shut all windows and doors, leaving them unlocked.
- Remove flammable window shades, curtains and close metal shutters.
- Remove lightweight curtains.
- Move flammable furniture to the centre of the room, away from windows and doors.
- Shut off gas at the metre; turn off pilot lights.
- Leave your lights on so firefighters can see your house under smoky conditions.
- Shut off the air conditioning.
Outside the house
- Gather up flammable items from the exterior of the house and bring them inside (patio furniture, children’s toys, door mats, trash cans, etc.) or place them in your pool.
- Turn off gas tanks.
- Move propane BBQ appliances away from structures.
- Connect garden hoses to outside water valves or spigots for use by firefighters. Fill water buckets and place them around the house.
- Don’t leave sprinklers on or water running, they can affect critical water pressure.
- Leave exterior lights on so your home is visible to firefighters in the smoke or darkness of night.
- Put your emergency supply kit in your vehicle.
- Back your car into the driveway with vehicle loaded and all doors and windows closed. Carry your car keys with you.
- Have a ladder available and place it at the corner of the house for firefighters to quickly access your roof.
- Seal attic and ground vents with pre-cut plywood or commercial seals.
- Patrol your property and monitor the fire situation. Don’t wait for an evacuation order if you feel threatened.
Long-term ways to protect your home in a fire
If you live in an area prone to fires, it’s a good idea to take a few steps to provide long-term protection for your house. CAL FIRE breaks this up into three categories: maintaining defensible space, making your home more fire-resistant, and utilising fire-resistant landscaping.
Maintaining defensible space
Defensible space is your home’s buffer against fire — specifically, the space between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs or other vegetation that surrounds it. Having a properly maintained defensible space can help to slow or stop the spread of fire and protect your home from catching fire — whether it’s from direct flame contact or radiant heat. CAL FIRE has a detailed set of instructions for how to create and maintain defensible space.
In the meantime, here are five no-cost ways to create a defensible space, courtesy of CAL FIRE:
1. Regularly clean your roof, gutters, decks, and the base of walls regularly to avoid the accumulation of fallen leaves, needles and other flammable materials.
2. Ensure all combustible materials are removed from underneath, on top of, or within five feet of a deck.
3. Remove vegetation or other combustible materials that are within five feet of windows and glass doors.
4. Replace wood mulch products within five feet of all structures with noncombustible products such as dirt, stone, or gravel.
5. Remove all dead or dying grass, plants, shrubs, trees, branches, leaves, weeds, and pine needles within 9.14 m of all structures or to the property line.
Making your home more fire-resistant
The technical term for this is “hardening” your home, and whether you’re building a new house in the area or retrofitting an existing property, it’s possible to make it more fire resistant. If you’re building or remodeling your home, CAL FIRE has put together a list of things you can do to harden your home. This includes using special construction design and materials on parts of a house including the roof, vents, eaves and soffits, windows, walls, decks, rain gutters, patio cover, garage, chimney, and fences.
But not everyone has the time or resources to put into significant renovations, so CAL FIRE also has lists of 10 low-cost ways to make your home more fire resistant (though we should also point out that “low-cost” is subjective):
1. When it is time to replace your roof, replace it with fire-resistant Class A roof material.
2. Block any spaces between your roof covering and sheathing (bird stops).
3. Install non-combustible corrosion resistant metal gutter covers on gutters to prevent the accumulation of leaves and debris in the gutter.
4. Cover your chimney and stovepipe outlets with noncombustible corrosion corrosion-resistant metal mesh screen (spark arrestor), with 1cm to 1.3cm openings. But do not use fibreglass or plastic mesh as they can melt or burn.
5. Cover all vent openings with 0.2cm to 0.3cm noncombustible corrosion resistant metal mesh screens. But do not use fibreglass or plastic mesh as they can melt or burn.
6. Caulk and plug gaps greater than 0.2cm around exposed rafters and blocking to prevent ember intrusion.
7. Inspect exterior siding for dry rot, gaps, cracks and warping. Caulk or plug gaps greater than 0.2cm in siding and replace any damaged boards, including those with dry rot.
8. Install weather stripping to gaps greater than 0.2cm in garage doors to prevent ember intrusion. The stripping must be compliant with local regulations.
9. When it’s time to replace your windows, replace them with multi-paned windows with at least one pane of tempered glass.
10.When it’s time to replace your siding or deck, use compliant noncombustible, ignition-resistant, or other materials approved by your local authorities.
In addition to creating and maintaining a defensible space on your property, you may also want to consider some fire-resistant landscaping. Basically, this involves using fire-resistant plants that are strategically placed on your property to resist the spread of fire to your home. And while no plants are fireproof, some do a better job at protecting your home than others. Here are some tips from CAL FIRE:
- Create fire-resistant zones with stone walls, patios, decks and roadways.
- Use rock, mulch, flower beds and gardens as ground cover for bare spaces and as effective firebreaks.
- There are no “fire-proof” plants. Select high-moisture plants that grow close to the ground and have a low sap or resin content.
- Choose fire-retardant plant species that resist ignition such as rockrose, ice plant and aloe.
- Select fire-resistant shrubs such as hedging roses, bush honeysuckles, currant, cotoneaster, sumac and shrub apples.
- Plant hardwood, maple, poplar and cherry trees that are less flammable than pine, fir and other conifers.
Other examples of fire-resistant plants include French lavender, red monkey flower, California fuchsia, sage, California lilac, society garlic, ornamental strawberry, yellow ice plant, coreopsis, and California red bud.
While this preparation may not protect your house from all fire damage, it can at least help increase its chances of survival in the event one occurs in your area.