The US fire season is here and the western states aren't the only ones feeling the effects this year. Arkansas and New Hampshire are currently dealing with wildfires. Out west, New Mexico alone is dealing with six uncontained fires that have burned over 500,000 acres to date. 1.7 million acres have burned overall, which is roughly one million acres more than this this time last year. All it takes is a lightning strike, malfunctioning power lines or a careless camper.
Though the West has long been prone to wildfires, record-breaking droughts and hotter weather exacerbated by climate change and population growth at the edge of urban areas are making the problem worse. Fire seasons aren't just longer, they're also more ferocious. Of the 20 most destructive fires in California history, 14 have occurred in the last six years. For those of us living here, it's a constant menace, particularly on dry windy days. Even when wildfires are 100 miles away, ash falls like snow and the sky can turn a sinister shade of orange.
It's a threat that Michael Hunt, a spokesman for the City of Oakland Fire Department, knows well. "Nowadays, we really try to impress upon residents, our own firefighters and the media that fire can start at any time. And with the drought conditions that we have experienced for the last several years, they contribute to very, very severe fire weather."
If you live in wildfire country, you can do much more than just worry about the possibility. You can take simple but significant steps to protect your property and home from a blaze. Here's how.
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Preparing for a fire inspection
Depending on where you live, your local fire department may conduct an inspection of your property for hazards before fire season begins. That's the case for my Oakland neighborhood, which is defined by the state of California as being in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone. Basically, that means because of its hilly terrain and abundant vegetation, my area is more prone to wildfires than a dense city center with little green space.
As Hunt told me, Oakland conducts the inspections as a precaution.
"We want to do everything we can to prevent those wildfires from starting in the first place," he says. "That starts with a really aggressive, diligent, disciplined inspection department."
Oakland inspects 25,000 homes and vacant lots each year and is one of few cities in California to have such an extensive program. There's a good reason: The 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm burned 1,520 acres (about 3 square miles) on a hot, dry and windy October weekend, killing 25 people and injuring 150 others. When it was finally extinguished after almost three days it had destroyed more than 3,000 homes and caused $1.5 billion in damages.
Hunt says regular maintenance is key. A little work every few weeks will be easier and likely cheaper than saving it for one weekend a year.
"We want to make sure that every resident is informed of the responsibility they have living in an area prone to fire," he says. "We're gonna be there if [a fire] happens, but residents can take an aggressive, proactive approach to mitigating any hazardous conditions that exist on their property."
Inspectors typically arrive unannounced and walk around your home to look for any violations. In June 2020, I didn't know ours had arrived until the dog started barking furiously early one Saturday morning at a strange man walking beside the house. He was friendly enough, even though we failed our inspection due to tree branches overhanging the house. That meant a rush to address the violations in the allotted six-week time period and send photo proof of the fixes (if not, we would have had to pay a $429 fee for a second inspection.)
The next year, I started preparing in April for my inspection so I'd pass on the first go. And the work paid off as I was thrilled in mid-June 2021 when we ended up passing.
While the below points are the specific things Oakland's inspectors look for, they apply to anyone who lives in a wildfire-prone community, whether you get inspections or not. Check with your local fire department to learn specific advice for your area. Most departments are more than happy to conduct resident education programs.
What inspectors look for
Trees: This is a big one and it's what tripped me up last year. Tree crowns need to have a 10-foot horizontal clearance from the house. Branches shouldn't hang over the roof, touch any structure, or grow under eaves or near a chimney. The gap helps create "cold air" space that can protect your house if the tree starts to burn. Also remove dead and dangling limbs and keep a clearance of at least 6 feet between the ground and the lowest branches.
Hunt says the point is to eliminate "ladder fuels."
"Make sure that there's vertical separation between those ground fuels and the tree," he says. "Otherwise fires can start on the ground at the base of a tree and start to just climb it."
When trimming a tree, just make sure to maintain its health and integrity. You may want to consult an arborist, especially for big, hard-to-reach trees that have thick branches and need a lot of attention. But find a local company early -- if you wait until after your neighborhood is inspected, all of them may be booked for weeks (as I found last year).
Even if you call an expert, I'd recommend investing in tools for tree branches you can cut yourself. I use a Fiskars Pole Saw ($60) -- it has both a saw and a pruning blade and can extend up to 12 feet -- and a Fiskars PowerGear2 Lopper ($47).
Roofs and gutters: Clear both areas of dead leaves and pine needles and anything else flammable. If you have a steep roof or are wary of working on top of a multistory house (like me), call a professional. You may consider installing gutter guards that will prevent materials from accumulating there in the first place.
Grass, weed and vines: Keep grass fresh and cut to no more than 6 inches and remove wild and overgrown vegetation that could become an ignition source (while leaving some ground cover to prevent erosion). This step can also help keep your garden healthy. In October, I spent two weekends pulling out thorny, mostly dead vines that were strangling one of the backyard trees.
Fences: Keep combustible vegetation and materials away from wooden fences and prune any tree branches touching them.
Roadways and fire hydrants: Trim any vegetation on your property that pokes into the street and or impedes access to fire hydrants.
Firewood: If you keep more than a day's use of firewood on hand, store it at least 20 feet away from the house. Do not keep it under a deck or balcony or in an exposed area below the house.
Other combustible materials: The same goes for rubbish, paper, haystacks and anything else that can catch fire easily -- discard it or store it safely.
Your address: Firefighters need to be able to find your house when it's dark or smoky. Even if your address is painted on the curb it should also be visible either on your house or a garden wall or fence. Contrasting colors like white letters on a dark background (or vice versa) work best.
Create defensible space
All of the above points are part of creating a 100-foot protective buffer surrounding your home called defensible space. Though the concept applies to anyone concerned about fire protection, homeowners in some areas of California at least are legally required to follow it. Check with your city to see if laws apply to you.
As defined by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the concept of defensible space divides your property into the zones, with specific suggestions for maintenance for each. (Other groups like the National Fire Protection Association may use different zone names and some cities may have more stringent codes.)
Zone 0 or Ember-Resistant Zone (0 to 5 feet from your buildings):
- Avoid using combustible landscaping materials like dry bark or mulch.
- Remove dead plants and trim tree branches within 10 feet of a chimney.
- Clean dead leaves and pine needles from gutters, roofs and decks.
- Keep plants next to the house area well-watered.
- Choose noncombustible outdoor furniture.
- Consider moving garbage and recycling bins outside this zone.
- Relocate firewood to Zone 2.
Zone 1 or Lean, Clean and Green Zone (extends to 30 feet from buildings or to the property line):
- Remove dead plants and trim tree branches hanging over the roof.
- Keep plants well-pruned and away from outdoor furniture, wooden playsets, etc.
- Clear any combustible materials from under decks, balconies or stairs.
- Regularly clean dead leaves and pine needles from your yard.
- Relocate firewood to Zone 2.
Zone 2 or Reduce Fuel Zone (extends from 30 to 100 feet from buildings or to the property line):
- Keep grass cut to 4 inches
- Create horizontal and vertical space between shrubs and trees (see Cal Fire for specific recommendations).
- Don't let fallen leaves, pine needles, twigs, bark and pine cones accumulate into thick piles.
- Exposed wood piles should have a minimum of 10 feet between them.
More you can do
There are other ways to prepare for fire season beyond what I've discussed above, many of which won't cost you a lot of time or money. These include:
- Keep the underside of your eaves clean and clear of anything that might cause embers to accumulate.
- Install a screen over your chimney opening.
- Store your barbecue (but really, the propane tank) away from combustible materials.
- Install mesh screens over your home's outdoor vents.
- Keep at least one working outdoor faucet with a hose that can reach your entire property.
- Don't completely block your driveway -- firefighters will need to use it to access your home.
- Buy a fire extinguisher and tools such as a shovel, rake and bucket.
- To keep embers from blowing in, seal your garage door so there are no gaps when it's closed.
- Install screens on windows and skylights.
Costlier and more labor-intensive options include:
- Using fire-resistant materials for your home's roof, patio cover, fences, deck, balcony and exterior walls. To spread out the cost you can always wait until you need to replace these items. What's more, local regulations may already mandate them.
- Plant fire-resistant landscaping and avoid trees like eucalyptus. The oil inside the trees is incredibly flammable and the peeling bark can carry embers long distances.
- Use double-paned and tempered windows (they're less likely to shatter from high heat).
- Install covers (called soffits) to protect the undersides of your home's eaves.
Other resources from Cal Fire
- Inexpensive Ways to Protect Your Home
- How to Harden Your Home Against Wildfires
- Fire-Resistant Landscaping
- A Guide to Creating Defensible Space
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