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For Homeowners: Preventing and Minimizing a Wildfire- The First Steps to Survival

Author’s note: This article is based in part on an interview with Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection(Cal Fire), who was kind enough to offer his expertise and time.

Woodland settings are picturesque spots for living and raising a family. There’s no doubt that Americans are in love with the idea of combining nature and the homestead. According to a study cited by FEMA, over 44 million residences in the lower 48 states are located in “wildland-urban” zones, where homes meet or intermingle with wild land vegetation.

As we continue to creep into the wilderness, an added risk comes with the pleasing view. More and more people are experiencing first-hand the raw power of nature as wildfires ravage neighborhoods tucked in these scenic vistas.

Wildfires differ vastly from the typical household fire. Most of us are trained to prevent and spot household fires.  We regularly put batteries in our smoke detectors, place fire extinguishers near hazardous locations and teach family members fire safety tips.

But fire sources like wildfires, are another story.  These require different skill sets, new survival techniques and advanced preparation. According to Cal Fire’s Daniel Berlant, “The danger with wildfires is not only external, but also internal. Intense heat of the fire outdoors can cause combustion and fire inside our homes”.  Embers are another factor and account for two-thirds of property loss in wildfires. Even after a wildfire has burned through the area, the potential for fire still may exist due to smoldering embers.

Prevention is the First Step:

1.  Cut back the vegetation.  Those who protect a 100 foot perimeter around their home fare far better in avoiding fire or saving their home. Some states (like California) require 100 feet of “defensible space” for this very reason. 

2.  Remove all fuel sources around the home by eliminating all flammable vegetation 30 feet around the home. This doesn’t imply a barren landscape, but do avoid dry leaves, vines and or tall grasses.

3.   Select fire-resistant landscaping plants. Water regularly. Avoid flammable pines, conifers, and eucalyptus.

4.   In the next 70 feet surrounding your property, carefully maintain landscaping to create a reduced fuel zone. 

5.   Since most fires start low and ascend, remove tree branches that are lower than 6 feet.

6.   Don’t surround trees with bushes or plants that can spread fire upwards into the tree branches.

7.   Check gutters regularly for debris and keep clean.  

8.   Place non-flammable mesh screens over chimneys and stovepipes.

9.   Choose fireproof building materials. Pick non-combustible materials for construction or remodeling. Sheet iron, brick, stone, tile, slate or aluminum reduce wildfire hazards.

10. Woodpiles for fireplaces should be outside the 100 foot defensible space. The best option for piles of kindling is to store in a fire resistant outbuilding, well distanced from the home.

11. Combustible exterior materials should be treated with fire-retardant chemicals.

12. Secure appliances to walls or floor. This is especially important in earthquake prone areas.

13. Keep a bucket, shovel, garden hose and rake handy for fighting fires.

14. Make sure all outside faucets work.

15. Installing a roof sprinkler system, according to structural and urban interface fire fighter, Brent Stainer, is worthwhile to prevent damage from embers.

16. Maintain fire awareness and prevention. Replace batteries regularly on smoke detectors. Place several charged fire extinguishers around your home, especially near flammables. Keep a fire extinguisher and flashlights (with batteries) in your vehicle.

17. Keep flashlights readily available throughout the home. Check batteries often.

18. Use a flammable cabinet to store combustibles. Keep doors closed.

19. Patio decks should be bricked in to prevent fire from burning underneath.

20. Write a family plan that includes escape routes and contact numbers. Conduct drills to practice. Drive the routes for evacuation prior to an emergency.

21. Create a survival kit that includes a 3 day supply of food and water and other necessities to sustain your family in the event roads are impassable or you must shelter elsewhere.  

22. Make a checklist of everything to take with you.

23. Fire blankets should be considered for those in high risk areas. While they won’t protect you from smoke inhalation, they can prevent some thermal burns. Opt for non-wool, high temperature tested fire blankets. Don’t let these give you a false sense of security. Use them only for emergencies.

24. Keep cell phones charged and fuel in vehicles.

25. Store important papers and photos in a fire proof safe.

26. Emergency water supplies should be adequate for firefighters.  Community fire hydrants, an emergency storage tank shared with neighbors or large bodies of water (such as swimming pools or ponds) are usually acceptable sources for fighting fire.  

27. Power failures can make well pumps inoperable. Plan accordingly by having a backup generator. Clearly mark all water sources and keep the route accessible.

28. Have a first aid kit well stocked with essentials. In the event of a fire, you may have to administer assistance to the injured until rescuers arrive. Make certain your kit has pain relievers, burn spray and wound dressings.

29. Take CPR and first aid classes as a family.  Teach your family how to use fire extinguishers.

If you are faithful in following these measures, you’ll greatly reduce the chances of property damages or human casualties which are the first steps in wildfire survival.

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