Each year, wildfires affect thousands of people and ravage millions of acres. What can begin as a small accidental fire due to human activity, equipment failure or a lightning strike can quickly grow out of control, threaten communities and towns in its path, and cause unimaginable damage to life and property.
May is National Wildfire Awareness Month and fire management decision makers are already on high alert. According to Accuweather, we should prepare for another active season. 2020 was a record-breaking wildfire season in which more than 4.3 million acres were scorched in California alone. Several other states including Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Wyoming were also severely impacted, some of which reporting record losses.
Lack of precipitation during this year’s spring season is a major concern among wildfire experts. The U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 75% of the western United States is experiencing drought conditions, with a sizeable percentage listed in the ‘extreme’ category. According to AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dave Samuhel, this year’s wildfire season is forecasted to burn 9.5 million acres of land across the western part of the country.
If your home or business exposures have not yet been carefully evaluated, now is the time. Comprehensive safety measures should also be developed for each individual location. First and foremost, ensure you make plans that protect and prevent loss of life. This includes designating multiple ways for those in the area to receive alerts and notifications, gathering supplies ahead of time and being aware of immediate evacuation routes. These preventative measures are important to maintain now and throughout the year.
While plans need to be comprehensive and specific to your location, there are two key areas to focus on: defensible space and structural fire resistance.
Defensible space is the natural or landscaped area around a home or building that can help reduce the risk of fire spreading. These are often divided and referred to as ‘zones’. Each zone has different precautionary measures recommended. In creating defensible space, it is important to manage vegetation around the building. By modifying vegetation and ensuring the area is free of fuel debris, it is possible to reduce the severity of or prevent a fire from reaching nearby structures.
Defensible space design will depend on many factors including building size, construction, materials, ground slope, surrounding topography and vegetation. The objective is to create a space with limited fuels and help stop the fire from reaching homes, buildings or other structures.
Fuels for fire include propane tanks, wood piles, fences, sheds, and vegetation such as trees, shrubs and grasses. Some vegetation is more flammable than others. Brush and trees produce a more intense fire than grasses, but grass-fueled fires travel more quickly. When fuels are managed or removed, fires can be more easily contained and controlled.
Property owners should consider clearing or thinning trees to mitigate the spread of fire among tree canopies. Additionally, regularly pruning tree branches and shrubs and removing accumulated branches, twigs, leaves and needles can mitigate risk.
Structural fire resistance
Building structures and homes can be built or modified to be fire resistant. For example, roofs are a key consideration since a combustible roof can pose a significant threat in the event of a wildfire. When building or replacing a roof, fire-resistant materials are highly recommended. Materials awarded a Class A designation by the Underwriter’s Laboratory are preferred because of their ability to withstand fire exposure without igniting. Roof shape can also play a role as ridges and valleys collect and hold debris that could ignite from embers. Keeping both roofs and gutters free of leaves, pine needles, twigs, or other wind-blown debris throughout the year can be an effective means of limiting structural losses due to wildfire.
Building codes increasingly require doors and windows of a building structure to be fire resistant and able to protect against severe heat and flames. Dual-pane, tempered glass windows are generally preferred. Additionally, best practices recommend vented openings be covered with metal mesh screens for protection. Spark arrestors are required of chimneys to prevent embers from escaping.
Decks, patios, porches and fences are also important considerations and can be treated with fire-retardant materials where appropriate. Also, keeping surface areas free of debris that could ignite easily can be an important practice. Storing combustible materials underneath or near such structures can be dangerous and vegetation management can be an important measure to protect structures.
Regardless of the origin and cause of the wildfire, many factors such as drought, vegetation conditions, winds, humidity, and abundant fuels can enable them to take on a life of their own — devouring anything in their path. It is important to take necessary precautions to control factors that can help limit their spread and aid containment.
EFI Global is closely monitoring the upcoming wildfire season and we are here to help you with any needs that arise during the months to come. For more, be sure to visit our website, read related blogs and get the latest updates from the CAT resource center.
- AccuWeather forecasters predict another bad fire season, Mark Puleo, May 6, 2021 https://www.accuweather.com/en/severe-weather/accuweather-2021-us-wildfire-season-forecast/939026
- Quick Guide Series, Fire 2012-1 Protecting Your Home from Wildfire: Creating Wildfire-Defensible Zones, Colorado State Forest Service
- A Complete Manual to Help Protect Your Home and Business from Wildfire, Nationwide, Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, 2015.
- Wildfires March 15, 2021, https://www.ready.gov/wildfires