Defend Your Home Against Raging A Wildfire

Crew fights a wildfire, Sept. 1, 2011, in Graford, Texas. Downloaded from (Getty)

On Sunday 1,554 homes were destroyed by a still-burning wildfire. In Bastrop County Texas. At least 5,000 people were forced from their homes according to Wildfires like these, across the country, put nearly 100 million people and their homes at risk each year. You can minimize your risk by understanding what fuels wildfires, and properly maintaining your home and landscaping. Here’s how.

Understanding How Fires Work

Three things must be present for fire to occur: heat, oxygen and fuel. Oxygen will always be available to feed a wildfire. Whether or not it ignites depends on the length of time it is exposed to high heat or embers.

The most important factors that determine your home’s vulnerability to wildfire are:

  • The natural or planted vegetation around the home.
  • The building materials and structural design of the home.

There are three primary ways in which a wildfire can ignite a home:

  • Flying embers, or firebrands, can catch homes on fire from up to a mile away if they land on flammable objects such as wood shingles, wood decks, landscaping material or pine needles. Burning embers can also reach the interior of the home through attic, roof or basement vents. Embers are the No. 1 cause of homes catching fire. The embers can lie smoldering, sometimes for hours after the main fire has passed, eventually igniting and destroying the structure.
  • Direct flame can ignite the structure through contact with the structure or attached features such as fences or decks.
  • Radiant heat can ignite, melt or damage certain materials which expose other flammable materials in a house and cause them to ignite.

Creating a Defense Zone

Vegetation such as trees, grasses and plants functions as the primary fuel source during wildfires. Investigations of why homes burn during wildfires consistently find that maintaining a safe distance from the edge of the natural, unmanaged vegetation to the house is key to a home’s survival. Most experts recommend maintaining a landscaped zone cleared of highly flammable vegetation that extends a minimum of 30 feet out from a home, and an additional zone of modified and managed vegetation that extends at least 100 feet from the house. This is referred to as defensible space, and the larger it is, the more it improves the likelihood that your home will survive on its own if firefighters cannot reach it. It also gives them space to operate when they do reach your home.

To create defensible space around your home, it is not necessary to remove all vegetation but rather to manage it in such a way that the fire’s heat and spread rate is greatly reduced.

Here are four ways you can maintain your landscaping to reduce home’s exposure to wildfire:

  • Create islands or clumps of plants that are separated by areas that won’t burn readily such as lawn, dirt and gravel/stone walkways.
  • Prune plants and trees so that the lowest tree branches are separated vertically from the tallest shrubs or grass by at least 10 feet. This helps eliminate what are referred to as ladder fuels.
  • Isolate or remove plants that are known to be highly flammable.
  • If possible, maintain a space of two to five feet immediately adjacent to the house that is cleared of all shrubs, dead plants, landscape bark and other flammable materials.

Evaluating Your Home’s Design and Construction

Many parts of a home itself are vulnerable to wildfire. In general, exterior construction materials that degrade or ignite when exposed to heat or flames such as vinyl, wood or glass create the greatest risk.

Be aware that:

  • Wood roof shingles will ignite when exposed to embers, as will leaf debris in gutters or roof valleys.
  • Airborne embers can enter attics through open eaves or vents.
  • Vinyl eaves or soffits will melt when exposed to heat from a wildfire and fall away from the roof trusses or wall sheathing, creating a pathway for embers to enter the attic.
  • Fire can be carried underneath a structure by sparks or nearby burning plants if a home has an open foundation or a deck without skirting.
  • Wooden decks and fences connected to a house can lead to home damage if they ignite.
  • Windows can transmit radiant heat and break under heat stress. Tempered or double-paned glass performs better than single-paned glass.
  • The distance between homes in a neighborhood is also a factor. A burning home produces significantly more heat than most burning vegetation and emits large pieces of burning material that can ignite other nearby houses or structures.

This content is provided courtesy of USAA.

Property and casualty insurance provided by United Services Automobile Association, USAA Casualty Insurance Company, USAA General Indemnity Company, Garrison Property and Casualty Insurance Company, USAA County Mutual Insurance Company, USAA Texas Lloyds Company and USAA, Ltd and is available only to persons eligible for P&C group membership. Each company has sole financial responsibility for its own products


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