Let’s face it: People love the mountains and the woods. Each year, more people move deeper into America’s wild places, carving out spaces for their dream homes amid scenes of breathtaking natural beauty. In the process, they’re unwittingly creating something else: an expansion in the wildland-urban interface.
The biggest problem with WUI expansion is that it can interfere with the natural cycle of wildfires, which keeps our forested areas healthy in the long term. Instead, we have an unnatural and dangerous buildup of old vegetation. This can fuel catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires that threaten property and lives.
Fires can damage a home three ways: through radiated heat, firebrands (burning materials that can be carried up to a mile by convection forces and/or wind) and the convection column itself. When we talk about wildfire mitigation, we’re referring to steps you can take around your home and on your property that may help prevent or reduce damage from any or all of the three.
Whether you’re building a new house or planning to retrofit your existing one, there are many things you can keep in mind to mitigate wildfire damage.
Incorporate fire-resistant building materials wherever possible. This means using metal, tile or asphalt composite shingles for the roofing and nonflammable exterior wall materials such as stucco, brick, plaster, cement or concrete masonry. A cautionary note about aluminum and vinyl siding: Although they are not technically flammable materials, they can lose their integrity at high heat.
Many people aren’t aware that radiated heat can ignite combustible materials from more than 100 feet away. Replace single- and even dual-pane windows and skylights with dual- or multi-pane, tempered-glass versions (especially large windows and sliding-glass doors that face the wildland). Add screens as an extra buffer.
Additionally, if you have a wood fence attached to your home, replace it with a noncombustible version such as metal, concrete or stone — and keep it free of climbing vines, weeds and other vegetation.
If your siding is combustible or not fire rated, make sure there are no spaces for embers to accumulate. Add caulk to all trim-to-siding locations where it has failed or is missing, and establish up to 5 feet of defensible, noncombustible space around your home.
After the roof, the eaves, soffits, windows and vents are the weakest links in the event of a fire. Consider open-eave framing or a soffited-eave design… and constructing those eaves and soffits with noncombustible materials. Again, avoid materials that will melt, such as vinyl or PVC.
Add metal mesh screens to all vents — such as attic, subfloor, foundation and dryer — to keep sparks out. Consider screening all decks and porches, as well. You’ll also want to weather-seal the perimeter of your garage doors, protecting any flammable materials stored inside.
Make sure your decks and porches extend over a flat grade. A fire can move upslope many times faster than on level ground. If you must have a deck that extends over a slope, use noncombustible decking such as Trex. Also, consider building a noncombustible wall across the slope approximately 15 to 20 feet from your deck.
Make sure your chimney extends above the roofline, and have a chimney spark arrestor, also known as a chimney guard or chimney screen, in place. These steps will help ensure that you don’t cause the next wildfire by accidentally igniting your roof or nearby trees and vegetation, particularly when dry conditions have made them vulnerable.
Keep your roof, gutters and vents clear of debris; firebrands can quickly ignite dried-out organic matter and spread to vulnerable areas such as vents, eaves and your roof. Have working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers on every floor of your home. Know how to use the extinguishers.
Can you maintain your water supply with uninterrupted electricity? Consider purchasing a generator to operate your pump in the event of a power failure, and make sure you have a connected, functioning garden hose.
Many folks who live in the WUI accept that wildfire risk is the price they pay for living in such beautiful places. They also try to do everything they can to mitigate that risk, for themselves and for the sakes of the firefighters who might have to defend their homes one day. There are no guarantees that these measures will save your home in the event of a large wildfire, but they may improve your chances of minimizing the damage.