6 small steps you can take that could save your house from a wildfire
Laguna Beach resident Keith Greer is ready for a wildfire. Special sensors outside his home have been designed to spot an approaching blaze. Devices that look like mounted rifles can then shoot water, he said, “all the way to the other side of the canyon.”
The $40,000 firefighting system came with the house in Arch Beach Heights when Greer bought it in 2009, he said. But fire officials, worried that homeowners could quickly deplete a local reservoir with guns that blast out hundreds of gallons of water a minute, have decided it would unwise to let people all over town devise similar setups.
A few others residents are permitted to shoot a fire retardant out of their so-called rain guns, said Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse. Mostly, though, staving off the potential destruction of a wildfire requires that homeowners employ a combination of strategies, large and small.
Many people by now know about the big ones, such as clearing combustibles and vegetation around a home and creating a “defensible space.” Newer homes and communities and significant remodels in hazardous areas must comply with a state building code that took effect in 2008 and is aimed at mitigating wildfire threats.
But firefighting officials say that, in plenty of other cases, homeowners do not pay enough attention to relatively small changes that can make a big difference, especially with older houses.
Steve Quarles is a senior scientist at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. The nonprofit agency, funded mostly by insurance companies, looks to reduce property damage and severe losses caused by weather, including wildfires. With California bracing for its worst-ever fire season, according to Gov. Jerry Brown, Quarles ticks off six fixes you can start making around the house today.
Walk around outside your home and look for places where the siding is close to the ground or touches it. Flying embers can accumulate at the base of that wall and ignite it, even if you went to the effort of creating a noncombustible zone around the house.
Building codes often advocate exposing the concrete foundation, with six inches between the ground and siding, Quarles said.
“Get a contractor to make sure you have some clearance between the ground and the start of the siding,” he said. “In the scheme of things, it’s not going to be a huge cost. It’s not like replacing the siding everywhere.”
A house could easily have a dozen vents, especially if there is an attic and crawl space. All can become entry points for burning embers. Dryer vents also are vulnerable. Make sure the mesh screening is in good condition and not rusted. Smaller, eighth-of-an-inch openings are preferable to those that are quarter-of-an-inch. Some attic and crawl space vents have been designed specifically to block embers.
In the Freeway Complex fire of 2008 – which involved Yorba Linda, Anaheim, Brea and other communities – flying embers compounded the mess that led to the damage or destruction of more than 380 homes.
“Even five blocks away, homes caught fire because embers were thrown in the air. They can travel a quarter mile, half mile or more,” said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi.
It also wouldn’t hurt to clear out the attic, though Quarles acknowledged that’s not so simple for many homeowners.
But, he noted, “That is a way a home can ignite during a wildfire – embers entering into that space through a vent and igniting things inside the attic.”
Many older homes in California have open-eave construction – where you can see the exposed rafters. These areas can trap embers or heat from flames, leading to more rapid ignition of combustible material.
One way to enclose the underside of the roof overhang would be to box in the eaves with a soffit material. Common ones are noncombustible, such as a fiber-cement product or exterior-rated, fire-retardant-treated plywood.
Install a drip edge
By now, most people know to replace a wood shake or shingle roof. But the roof can still present problems.
At the edge of the roof where the gutter is attached, see whether there is a drip edge – a metal flashing with a lower edge that projects outward, to control the direction of dripping water and help protect building materials. In a fire, it has the added benefit of protecting some vulnerable parts of the roof.
“We would recommend if they don’t have that, they have to put one in,” Quarles said. “That’s something that almost any homeowner could do by themselves. If you’re on a big hill and you’re uncomfortable on that roof, hire it out.”
And obviously, be vigilant about keeping debris out of the roof gutters. The debris can be easily ignited by the wind-blown embers.
Replace single-pane windows
You want dual- or multi-pane windows with tempered glass. Windows are vulnerable to radiant heat, and shattered glass will let in embers and flames. Tempered glass is about four times more resistant to breaking in a fire.
Also, metal window casings are preferable to vinyl. If the frame ignites, the fire can burn through the stud cavity and into the room.
Consider replacing a domed skylight with a flat, tempered glass skylight. Domed skylights typically are plexiglass or some plastic material, Quarles said.
“The steeper the roof, the more the roof acts like a wall and the more protection you would want for the skylight,” he said. “In that case, the advantage goes to the glass version rather than the dome type, because of the resistance to radiant heat.”
Check the deck
A deck can easily fuel a fire, especially if combustible material is stored underneath it, or if there’s debris between the boards or the deck and the wall. Rotted wood is especially ignitable.
Flames on a slope can extend more than 30 feet, so even an elevated deck could need attention.
If you decide to replace the deck boards, choose a product complying with the requirements of the California Building Code as outlined by the state fire marshal. Fire performance information for many deck products also can be found on the manufacturers’ websites.
Remember that despite the recommended changes, no home is fully fireproof.