Is it Possible to Fire-Proof Residential Homes?
Authors: Weston Martin, Jaden Walle, Dylon Paulsen, and Emy Ketterer
This case study is part of a collection of pages developed by students in the 2012 course, "Megafires: rare events or the new norm," in the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University. Learn more about this project.
Wildfires pose a serious threat to homeowners in areas of risk
They are responsible for the destruction of both public and private property every year, and the damage from one season can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Residential loss to uncontrolled fires is devastating to those affected, and deadly if evacuation is not possible. Although wildfires can be powerful forces of destruction, risk mitigation is usually cost effective and simple to implement.
A cultural feature of the modern American West is the tendency to build residential structures at wildland/urban interfaces. The wildland/urban interface in the U.S. is likely the most hazardous place to build residences that can be affected by wildfires and thought must be made when considering to buy or build in these areas. The meshing of urban zones with undeveloped regions is a trend that has steadily increased throughout much of the twentieth century. This expansion has strained the ability of firefighters and infrastructure to be onsite at the critical moment to prevent losses. Emplacement of fire hazard reduction techniques has become essential for those who live at this boundary.
Regional Fire Environments
The first step in reducing wildfire damage is to understand the nature of regional fire hazards and characteristics in relevant areas. There are four types of regions in the United States where wildfires occur that cause significant damage. All regions have their own distinct set of wildfire characteristics that help to define themselves. They are classified as: grassland, shrubland, woodland, and forested. Thought concerning the characteristics of a wildfire region should made before buying or building residences in relevant areas.
Marked by tall grasses that cover much of the ground surface. Little to no woody vegetation is found here, but an abundance of fuel exists as the various grasses and weeds. Grassland fires have the highest frequencies of occurrence at five to tens of years. However, the intensity of these fires is low and events can be over shortly.
As the name suggests, this region is primarily populated by shrubs and grasses. Shrubland can be both dense or more open with a moderate amount of woody fuel that creates fires of moderate intensity. Frequency intervals between fires are generally lower but can be variable - on the order of twenty-five to hundreds of years. Dense coverage and elevated levels of fire intensity can make these regions particularly hazardous.
Generally woodlands are characterized by open forest with with grass. There are usually no ladder fuels for which fires can climb up into the branches of trees. Grass and other surface fuels may ignite frequently, but major fires typically occur at moderate intervals of fifty to hundreds of years.
Forested regions are populated primarily by trees. Different tree types and forests can affect frequency, but they are marked by abundant woody fuel that contributes to extremely high intensity fires. The presence of ladder fuels enables fires to reach into high branches and create highly destructive 'crown' fires. The lowest occurrence intervals are observed between fires here, on the scale of generally 50 to hundreds of years. Forested regions are some of the most common areas to host fires that destroy residential structures.
A wildfire that destroys many homes is not only expensive; it can also be deadly and destroy entire communities. Although it may not be entirely possible to completely fire-proof residential homes from all fire threats, homeowners can greatly reduce the amount of potential fire damage by being aware of the natural risks associated with the surrounding environment. Simple methods used to fire-proof homes at both a small and large scale can be employed to improve the survivability odds of a house, and the safety of its inhabitants. Fire-proofing a house can be reasonably incorporated into a budget and is cheaper when compared to the cost of fire damage. Important things to consider are: the likelihood of a house catching fire, the identification of fire hazards around the home, and changes to be made that will help fire proof a home.
Be Fire Aware! Smoky the Bear reminds us that human error is no joke in the video below.
1. Landscaping and Zoning
The first step in planning for a fire-safe home is to consider the landscaping. There are three Concentric Zones of Defensible Space that describe varying physical parameters and the proposed reduction of exposed combustible fuels in each.
Zone 1: 30 feet directly around the home.
- Preferably no fuels in this zone
- Mow the lawn frequently
- Clear dead vegetation
- Replace wooden patio furniture with metal and/or fiberglass furniture
- NO firewood stacks or propane tanks
- Water frequently
Zone 2: 100 feet from the home.
- Trees and shrubs should be well spaced and not placed in large groups
- Use a wider cement or gravel driveway to act as a fire break.
- Keep trees pruned 6 to 10 feet from the ground
Zone 3: 100-200 feet from the home.
- Thin forest to prevent canopies from touching
- Remove dead and overhanging branches and leaves
- Remove small trees growing between the tall ones
Sometimes it is possible to maintain an aesthetically pleasing transition between zones. A boundary of short grass, rocks, or even a wall can all be used effectively to create a good looking separation.
Flame resistant building materials are extremely important elements for fire-proofing homes. Building materials that are not flammable make a huge difference in the loss or survival of a structure.
- Composition shingle
- Cement tile
- Dual pane, tempered glass
Vents and Openings
- Should be covered with 1/8'' metal screen
- Debris can accumulate and ignite during a wildfire, keep them clean and unobstructed
- Separate wooden fences with metal or stone barriers
- Decks and porches should be free of fuels
- Raised wooden porches should not be present at the top of a hill
3. Create a Fire Plan
In the event that a fire does reach your home, it is important to have a plan of action that will ensure the safety of family and property.
Make sure everyone in the household is aware of the dangers of wildfire. Agree on a reliable evacuation strategy. Detail various evacuation methods, where to meet and who to call. Practice your fire plan before a real fire happens. Don't forget to include pets!
You can familiarize yourself with additional home fire-proofing methods by engaging in these interactive web modules:
For more information on how to protect your home from wildfire damage, you can visit these websites and resources:
Firewise Information - A website that offers information on wildfire preparedness and other educational resources, such as classes.
Smoky the Bear information - Classic Smoky the Bear offering you more ways to become fire wise, through information on fire science and how to be 'smart' outdoors. Take the pledge today!
National Fire Protection Association - Association offering homeowners fire codes and standards, the 'authority on fire, electrical and building safety'.
Fire Adapted Communities - This website offers information on how you can create a fire-adapted home, and how you can familiarize yourself with the region around your home.
Fire regimes of the coterminous United States - This table by the National Forest Service summarizes fire regimes for 256 vegetative communities across the United States.
Topography's Effect on Fire Behavior. Auburn.edu. N.p., Web. 20 Apr. 2013. https://fp.auburn.edu/fire/topos_effect.htm
Wildfires. National Geographic. N.p. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
The Home Builder's Guide to Construction in Wildfire Zones, a Federal Emergency Management Agency technical fact sheet series. Print.
Be Firewise Around Your Home. Quincy: Firewise Communities, Print.
Firewise Guide to Landscape and Construction. Quincy: Firewise Communities, Print.
URS Group, Inc. Home Builder's Guide to Construction in Wildfire Zones. Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, 2008. Print.