According to the National Interagency Fire Center, almost 53,000 wildfires destroyed 9 million acres in the U.S. so far this year. A 2016 Wildfire Hazard Risk report identifies California, Texas, and Colorado as the states at highest risk, but every state reported wildfires and they continue to increase annually.
The United States Department of Agriculture states that
climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970. The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.
(Learn more in 5 Ways Climate Change Can Affect Your Home Insurance Policy.)
Wildfires can devastate the natural environment, but they also decimate homes. As a homeowner, you can't put a stop to the raging flames, but there are steps you can take to keep your home protected.
First Things First: Preventing Wildfires
The term "wildfire" can lead us to think that they are entirely natural events. But in fact, only 10% of fires start from lightning strikes or lava.
According to the U.S. National Park Service, humans start as many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States. In some cases, it results from damaged powerlines, industrial activity, or arson. But many are also caused by unattended campfires, careless smoking, and incinerating debris.
The first thing you can do to protect against wildfires is ensuring that you don't start one yourself. Even burning a pile of leaves in your backyard can get out of hand quickly, so take every precaution when using fire.
Protecting Your Home
You can't control the weather or pick up your home and move it to a safer location. But you're not entirely helpless. You can manage combustible material in and around the house and protect it from the leading cause of fires – embers.
Eliminate Flammable Materials
A home or garage littered with combustible material is an invitation for disaster. Clean your home’s roof and gutters and remove dead branches, dumped lawn cuttings, and dead foliage regularly. Leave space between tree canopies so embers are less likely to jump between them.
Move stacked firewood and leftover building materials at least 30 feet away your home, garage, shed, or wooden fence.
Protect Against Embers
Embers can enter through attic vents and ignite flammable materials that have been stored away. Experts recommend ember resistant attic vents, a non-flammable chimney screen, and Class A roofing material such as concrete or clay roof tiles, fiberglass asphalt composition shingles, or metal.
FEMA also recommends non-combustible fences such as concrete, stone, or masonry. Otherwise, combustible material can ignite the building through radiant or convective heat, or flames.
Don’t Clear – Thin
You do not need to strip away all foliage from around your home. A USGS study determined that the best ways to reduce structure losses are to “reduce the percentage of woody cover up to 40% immediately adjacent to the structure and to ensure that vegetation does not overhang or touch the structure.”
(For detailed information on pruning and brush management, check out this brochure put together by the City of San Diego.)
Make Outdoor Additions Safer
When making additions to your outdoor space, go with the safer choice.
If you’re building a deck, consider non-combustible materials such as steel framing, aluminum decking, or fire-retardant-treated lumber. Otherwise, attach non-combustible fiber-cement sheathing to the bottom of the deck joists.
Keep the areas under the deck debris- and vegetation-free and don’t use that space to store combustible items like fabric lawn furniture.
When planting trees, shrubs, and flowers, consider fire-resistant varieties. Groundcover, low and slow-growing plants, plants with little sap or resin, and drought-resistant plants are usually fire-resistant. Fire-resistant varieties include:
- Shrub roses
Choose hardwood trees such as cherry, maple, and oak over pine and fir.
Proper Insurance Coverage
Damaged or destroyed homes and their contents account for most wildfire insurance claims. Other claims include cleaning and smoke remediation. Residents forced to evacuate the area may want compensation for apartment rent, hotel fees, and restaurant meals, too.
Typically, policies cover repairs or the rebuilding your home and your personal belongings up to the policy limit. Some may cover additional living expenses and landscaping costs such as replacing plants, shrubs, and trees, but homeowner’s policies vary so review your coverage with your agent to see exactly what is covered and what isn't (for help reading your policy, see The 5 Basic Types of Home Insurance Coverage You Need to Understand).
Homeowners in high-risk areas may find it more difficult to find coverage. If an insurer believes your home is in a wildfire zone or too close to a brush area, they might deny coverage or cancel your policy, because the risk is too high (learn more about Homeowner's Insurance in the Wildland-Urban Interface).
If this happens, you need to find replacement insurance quickly. Otherwise, your lender may buy “force placed” insurance on your behalf, and it’s very expensive. Some states offer limited fire coverage policies, but they’re typically more expensive and provide less coverage than policies obtained through traditional insurers.
Many homeowners choose specialty policies through “surplus line” insurers. To qualify for these policies, homeowners must show that they cannot buy traditional insurance. Rates and coverage for these vary greatly, so shop around before you buy.
Polls conducted for the Insurance Information Institute reveal that only half of all homeowners in the U.S. have a home inventory. This is very unfortunate, because it records your possessions and provides vital information necessary to tailor your policy to your needs.
A home inventory is an invaluable resource if you need to file a claim, too. Few people can recall everything in their household from memory, never mind after a stressful event like a wildfire. It is also an excellent way to substantiate your losses if you need financial assistance after a disaster or if you qualify for a tax break.
Wildfires can occur anywhere, so you need to be prepared. Many of the precautions mentioned above cost little more than your time, but could save you, your family, and your home from a devastating wildfire.
(For related reading, find out How to Prepare Your Home for a Hurricane.)