By Gordon Williams
The coronavirus has our full attention now, but rising temperatures and dwindling rainfall send a clear warning that the 2020 wildfire season is on the way. While it lasts, one million or more Washington homes will be at risk from fire — homes where wildlands and human development come together. Fortunately, there is a great deal you can do to prepare your home for wildfire season on your own, and using only tools you most likely have around the house.
Your challenge, in a nutshell, is to remove anything and everything that can burn from close to home. That includes trash, woodpiles, vegetation and fallen leaves and branches.
Your game plan is based on what the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) calls the “home ignition zone.” The NFPA is a non-profit organization that works to reduce death and financial loss from fire.
The home ignition zone divides your house and the space around it into three segments: Immediatezone (your home and five feet out); Intermediate zone (five to thirty feet out); and Extended zone (thirty to 100 feet out). Here are recommended strategies for each zone:
Start with the home itself. If something can burn, get rid of it or move it farther away from the dwelling. Clean leaves, pine needles and other debris from the roof and gutters. Remove anything flammable stored beneath decks and porches. Move such flammable items as woodpiles, leaves, mulch, flammable plants and storage tanks at least 50 feet away from exterior walls. Replace vegetation that might burn with gravel or crushed stone.
Burning embers can fly great distances–spreading the fire. Replace loose or missing shingles and roof tiles to keep embers from penetrating your home. Similarly, repair or replace damaged windows or screens. Cover all vents that could allow embers to enter the house with 1/8th inch metal mesh screening. Use the same grade mesh to cover the chimney and to seal off openings beneath porches and decks.
Ideally you want as much of your home as possible to be made of material that won’t burn. If you plan to replace your roof, the NPFA suggests using Class-A fire-rated roofing products. Use non-flammable materials if you plan to add a porch or deck. Think about covering exterior walls with fire resistant materials such as stucco or brick. Vinyl siding could melt in a fire.
The aim here is to keep fire from spreading to your home. Clear trees so there is a minimum of 18 feet between crowns. Make sure no tree spreads its canopy closer than 10 feet from the dwelling. Prune trees so there is nothing growing within six to ten feet from the ground. Beware of “ladder fuels” — plants growing beneath a tree that might allow fire to climb into the tree. Clear any vegetation from beneath propane storage tanks.
Plantings should be in small clusters so there isn’t continuous vegetation across which fire could spread. Break up the vegetation with paths, walkways and driveways to slow the spread of fire. Keep lawns mowed to a height of four inches and quickly dispose of cuttings and debris.
Clear all litter and debris. Remove all dead trees and plants. Clear anything flammable from near the garage or other out-buildings. Remove smaller plants growing between trees. Trees 30 to 60 feet from the house should have at least 12 feet between canopy tops. Trees 60 to 100 feet from the home should have at least six feet between canopy tops. Space between trees should be even wider than that if your home is on a slope.
There is plenty of material available to help you prepare your home for wildfire season.
Check out the NFPA website at www.nfpa.org. Also look at the website of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources at dnr.wa.gov/fightingfire.
Look at the “Defend Your Home from Wildfire” guide at the DNR site for more ideas about surviving wildfire season. The guide offers phone numbers for each of the department’s six regions; you are invited to call the office for your region for more information about fire prevention.
Finally, make sure your house number is clearly visible from the street, in case fire companies need to reach you. Those house numbers should be made of materials that won’t burn.
The next project you take on at home could add both curb appeal and resiliency in the face of wildfire season. Help keep our state green and safe!