What Should I Do?

Home Fire-Safe Checklist

Be Fire-Safe and create a defensible space
Friday, August 10, 2018, 6:35 PM

[NOTE: This article is adapted from When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival]

Fire Statistics

The following statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) are for fires in the USA in 2016:

  • there were 1,342,000 fires reported in the United States. These fires caused 3,390 civilian deaths, 14,650 civilian injuries, and $10.6 billion in property damage.     
  • 475,500 were structure fires, causing 2,950 civilian deaths, 12,775 civilian injuries, and $7.9 billion in property damage.    
  • 173,000 were vehicle fires, causing 280 civilian fire deaths, 1,075 civilian fire injuries, and $933 million in property damage.    
  • 662,500 were outside and other fires, causing 85 civilian fire deaths, 650 civilian fire injuries, and $1.4 billion in property damage.

In general, fires cause more loss of life and property in America than all natural disasters combined! Every year, fires are responsible for more loss of life, limb, and property in the USA than either hurricane Katrina or the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11!  Statistically speaking, the easiest and most cost effective way to reduce the chances that you, your home, or your family might suffer great loss in a future event, is to improve the fire safety of your home, and the fire awareness of your loved ones.

With the record breaking heat, drought, and fire storms of the summer of 2018, most of us want to do what we can to improve the chances that our home will survive a local wildfire. Creating a “defensible space” is one of the first sets of tasks that a rural homeowner or renter should do.

Creating a Defensible Space

My buddy Jim Bolton, an experienced Reno fireman, tells me that when they enter a neighborhood, they take mental notes about which homes have maintained a defensible space and which have not. They don’t waste their time focusing on homes without a defensible space, but spend their time defending homes where they stand a decent chance of success, while keeping a watchful eye on nearby flames. These are brave guys, risking their necks where most of us would not go, but they have wives and kids so when a vicious fire storm gets dangerously close, they simply have to leave the neighborhood and let nature take its course.

Steps for creating a defensible space:

  • Clear dead brush from property and trim tall weeds short.
  • Clean rain gutters and roof valleys of all dead leaves and pine needles.
  • Place smoke detectors in all bedrooms, hallways, kitchens and at least one on every floor of your home.
  • Put fire extinguishers in kitchen, garage, and workshop areas.
  • Inspect and chimney sweep chimneys and woodstove pipes annually to prevent creosote buildup. Creosote is a black greasy gooey layer that is combustible, and is a common byproduct of incomplete wood combustion. Chimney fires destroy many homes each year.
  • Store flammables (gasoline, kerosene, oily rags, paint thinner, etc.) in approved flame-resistant containers and away from living areas. Garage areas should have one-hour fire-wall code-approved construction (typically ⅝-inch sheetrock wall covering, or better).
  • Clear ground of pine needles, dead leaves, etc. Rake them once in the spring and let them fall in the fall. Remove dead vegetation and debris.
  • Thin out thick stands of shrubs and trees to create a separation.
  • Remove “ladder fuels” like lower tree branches and shrubs underneath trees to keep wildfire from climbing and spreading. Prune all dead limbs from trees.
  • Plant “green zones” of moist, fire-resistant plants that will act as a barrier, and not fuel for fires.
  • Swimming pools, ornamental ponds, etc., provide extra water reserves for fighting fires, and may be tapped by either fire trucks’ onboard pumping systems or lighter-duty homeowner firefighting pump systems.
  • Consider installing fireproof window shutters that will help prevent the heat of an approaching a firestorm from shattering your windows or transmitting enough radiant heat to ignite items inside the home.
  • Your house number should be clearly visible from the street for identification by emergency vehicles.

Additionally, in rural areas it may be a smart idea to purchase a high-volume gasoline-powered home fire-fighting pump. Gel systems have the capability to get the most out of limited water supplies, and the sticky gel is a fire resistant gooey coating that provides much longer lasting protection than a simple water spray, when applied to walls, decking, and roofing.

Additional Resources:

~ Mat Stein


About the author: Matthew Stein is a design engineer, green builder, and author of two bestselling books: When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival (Chelsea Green 2011), and When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency (Chelsea Green 2008). Stein is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he majored in Mechanical Engineering. Stein has appeared on numerous radio and television programs and is a repeat guest on Fox News, Coast-to-Coast AM, Alex Jones’ Infowars, Vince Finelli’s USA Prepares, and The Power Hour.  He is an active mountain climber, serves as a guide and instructor for blind skiers, has written several articles on the subject of sustainable living, and is a guest columnist for the Huffington Post. www.whentechfails.com and www.matstein.com.

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2 Comments

richcabot's picture
richcabot
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 5 2011
Posts: 226
Interconnected alarms

Especially in larger homes, interconnected fire alarms are essential.  If a fire starts downstairs and you have bedroom doors closed you may not hear the alarm.  If you wait until the smoke or flames get to the bedroom and your local alarm goes off it may be difficult to get out.

Code requires them in new construction but they are worth paying for as a retrofit.  

greendoc's picture
greendoc
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 23 2008
Posts: 151
Add Home Hardening to the list

We almost lost our home in the WUI/Wildland-Urban Interface in the big Sonoma county fires last October. 1 in 3 Americans live in the WUI.  

I recently attended two excellent workshops the UC-Extension/Master Gardeners sponsored. 

I was pretty familiar with the idea of defensible space (but only haphazardly followed the principles) before. But the real "take home" message from these workshops, repeated over and over: Start from your home and work out.  The concept of "home hardening" or making it more resistant to ignition from blowing embers or radiant heat may actually more important than defensible space.  Many homes literally burned from the inside out as small embers entered the attic space via the undereave vents and ignited the attic space.  I saw this firsthand last year and after the Redding fires....ash piles of burnt homes surrounded by green trees and lawns.  

YOu can download an excellent PDF about home hardening complete with excellent pictures here:  http://www.firesafesonoma.org/main/docs

Appendix A: Creating Wildfire Adapted Homes and Landscapes

It is critically important these 6 features  should be constructed of Class A (fire resistant) building materials. Especially fencing!  Wrought iron, decorative metal, stucco, brick, CMUs, etc. 

Roofs

Vents

Eaves/soffits

Nothing flammable within 5 feet of house perimeter: this means no vegetation (even well watered greenery), trellis, wooden fences, shade structure, etc. 

Windows

Decks

Siding

 

Once you get your home hardened and the first five feet cleared of anything flammable, this website has great ideas/landscape plans/ pictures of what a fire safe landscape looks like. 

There is even a pdf on what to do on redflag warning days (high wind/high temps/low humidity days).  

http://sonomamg.ucanr.edu/Firewise_Landscaping/Red_Flag_Warning_Days/

 

http://sonomamg.ucanr.edu/Firewise_Landscaping/

Once you build it, you gotta maintain it!  I am an avid gardener, and even I was way behind on the needed work so well outlined above by Matt. Here is an expanded list http://sonomamg.ucanr.edu/Firewise_Landscaping/Yard_Maintenance/

I have spend part of every weekend this past year: trimming, thinning, pruning, clearing, relocating plants. We have cut down two trees, are planning on replacing portions of our wooden fence with metal and are investigating how to retrofit our vents with 1/8" screens and cover our wood deck in ceramic tile. 

I think this is vital part of prepping if you live in the WUI.  Even the East coast, so wet now, could swing back to drought at folks there be at risk for wildfire.  

 

 

 

 

 

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