By Sue McCourt, Plumas County Office of Emergency Services, Fire Prevention Specialist
Looking for ways to prepare for fire season? Why not learn more about how you can give your home a better chance to survive a wildfire. With many of us with “stay-at-home-restrictions,” NOW is the perfect time to start looking at your home and its vulnerability to wildfires. The month of May is Wildfire Awareness Month. Each of us needs to take the time to create a defensible space for our homes and have an emergency plan in place should the next wildfire threaten our community.
Give your home a chance — understanding wildfires and embers
Embers are the most significant cause of home ignition. Research indicates that many of the homes that are destroyed are ignited by wind-blown embers — not from the actual flames of the fire! These embers are capable of igniting and burning your home in several ways. In order to have a wildfire-safe home, two equally important steps must be taken. First there is the selection of building materials and designs that will help the home resist wildfires and second, the creation of adequate defensible space, based on the selection, placement, and maintenance of vegetation within 100 feet of all structures or more on steep slopes.
As we head into May, here are some tips to “Harden Your Home” from Wildfire Researchers at the Insurance Institute of Building and Safety (IBHS). Now is a good time to take a look at your roof, your vents and the 5-foot non-combustion zone around your home and see how you look and get ahead of it before fire season is upon us.
Look at your roof — the most vulnerable part of your home
Block any spaces between roof decking and covering to prevent embers from getting in those vulnerable areas. Embers can land in the smallest areas and start a fire and you or firefighters may not even be at your home when it happens.
Homes with wood or shingle roofs are at high risk of being destroyed during a wildfire. If you still have a wood roof, this should be the number one on your priority list. A fire resistant roof is the number one defense for wildfire. Your roof on fire means every neighbor in your area is at risk due to burning wood shakes being carried by the wind throughout your neighborhood and starting new fires.
Eaves and soffits
Open eaves are more vulnerable to both ember entry and direct flame contact exposures in comparison to soffited-eaves. Eaves and soffits should be protected with ignition-resistant or non-combustible materials. The IBHS research center suggests that if you have open eaves, use a sealant (such as caulking) to cover gaps, or enclose the underside of the roof overhang. It is yet another spot embers can land in and start burning.
Check your vents
Remember many homes actually ignite from the inside during a wildfire when powerful winds blow embers into the home through attic, crawlspace or dryer vents. IBHS recommends that 1⁄4-inch. (6 mm) mesh screening should not be used to cover any vent. Finer mesh sizes of 1/8-inch. (3mm) or 1/16-inch (1.5mm) would be preferred. The finer 1/16-inch mesh screen will require more cleaning-related maintenance to remove the debris that can accumulate on the screen surface. Do not use fiberglass or plastic mesh because they can melt and burn. Use manufactured and California approved vents to retrofit existing attic, soffit, basement, foundation, and gable vents where possible. Consult with a building contractor, architect, or engineer to ensure that adequate ventilation exists when installing ember resistant vents, which may restrict airflow.
This is a very vulnerable place for a fire to start. Imagine an ember landing in your gutter filled with dry leaves and pine needles from the windstorm that happened just the day before. How many times a year do you get on a ladder and clean your gutters? You just cleaned them and they are full again! The best option for homeowners is to screen with gutter guards or covers. There are a variety of manufacturers and contractors available to do this.
What about the garage?
Install weather stripping around and under the garage door to prevent embers from blowing in. Install a battery backup to your garage door opener to ensure you can open and CLOSE it when evacuating, especially in the dark. Practice opening the door manually if you do not have a battery backup, since the power may be out when a wildfire approaches.
Have a fire extinguisher and tools such as a shovel, rake, bucket and hoe available for fire emergencies in your garage.
Create a no-Burn Zone closest to home
Homeowners should also create a “non-combustible” zone within 3-5 feet of the house. This includes the entire footprint of the deck and 6 inches vertically upward from the ground to the start of your siding. Swap out any bark mulch use rock mulch (gravel) in that location. That also includes the vertical space around your house. Make sure tree limbs and shrubs are trimmed back with zero dead vegetation in this area.
Your home’s siding also matters. There are many flame-resistant siding materials on the market. Take a look and make sure your siding doesn’t directly touch the ground. If your siding reaches all the way to the ground, embers can accumulate at the base of the wall and ignite the siding. One idea is to expose 5-6 inches of concrete at the base of the wall. You can also install metal flashing to protect it, making sure it’s tucked under the siding so water doesn’t accumulate inside it. Fiber cement boards are also an option. Be sure to keep the area underneath your deck free of anything that could possibly catch fire. Think embers — they can get in to the smallest spaces. A stack of wood, a pile of leaves or pine needles, your cardboard that you were going to recycle … remember wind likes to funnel underneath your deck and it is a very vulnerable spot.
For more information on how you can be better prepared for wildfire visit Cal Fire’s Ready for Wildfire site at www.readyforwildfire.org. To learn more about the Insurance Institute for Home and Business Safety (IBHS) wildfire research and guidance visit them at www.disastersafety.org. For local information visit the Plumas Firesafe Council website at www.plumasfiresafe.org. or follow them on Facebook at Plumas County Fire Safe Council. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Fire Safe Council monthly meetings will be held virtually until further notice. Updates about digital platform meetings for the Council will be posted on the Council website. For more information on how your neighborhood could become a Firewise Community please contact the Plumas Firesafe Council Coordinator Hannah Hepner at (530) 927-5281.