Wildfire-proof your home
Firewise assessments reduce fire risks to homes
By Tom Eiber and Dave Schuller
Homes in Minnesota have always been at risk from wildfire, but the past 20 years have brought major changes in our landscape. By the thousands, Minnesotans have sought to escape the hustle and bustle of the urban environment by building homes in or near woods, wetlands, parks, and other natural areas. This intermixing of homes and wildlands has inadvertently placed people and their homes at risk of wildfire.
Minnesotans are not alone in moving to fire-prone woodlands. In the Southwest, thousands of homes were destroyed by the Oakland Hills fire in 1991 and the Los Alamos fire in 1999. Minnesotas Firewise project was created to help protect homes from similar wildfire disasters. Firewise is a national program cooperatively sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association, the National Association of State Foresters, and various government agencies.
For the homeowner
What can you do to make your home, neighborhood, and community less susceptible to damages caused by wildfire? First of all, you need to understand that you are a full and active partner in making your home safe. Along with the firefighter that stands between your home and an oncoming wildfire, the construction of your home, your landscaping, and your normal maintenance will determine whether your home will survive a wildfire.
Factors influencing a homes susceptibility to fire can be classified into three groups: access, structure, and environment. By understanding each group, you will be able to focus your home maintenance activities into effective safety measures for you and your home.
Help firefighters reach your home
Access begins with simple things that help your fire service find your house in an emergency. For example, does your house have big, visible numbers on it or posted as fire numbers by your driveway? The DNR Firewise team and the International Fire Code Institute recommend numbers at least 4 inches tall. Are they visible from the street and not overgrown by foliage? Are the street signs in your neighborhood clear and visible? In addition, house numbers, fire numbers, and street signs should be reflectorized so that they can be seen at night. And fire numbers and street signs should be on a metal post so they dont burn down in a fire.
The driveway itself is important. If it is less than 150 feet long, it should be 12 feet wide. If it is more than 150 feet long, it should be cleared to at least 20 feet wide. In both cases overhead branches should be pruned up 14 feet to allow the passage of a large fire engine. Sharp turns need to be avoided, and a turnaround area of at least 45 feet should be included on long driveways.
How vulnerable your home is to fire depends both on its construction and its maintenance. Wood siding and shingles are highly susceptible to catching fire. Metal siding and stucco with fire-rated asphalt shingles resist fire much better. Vinyl siding and gutters can melt and catch sparks. Double-pane windows resist heat and breakage much better than single-pane windows.
Flying embers set more houses on fire than do the tall, dramatic flames shown on the TV news. You want to look for places where embers could settle and start a fire. Do leaves and pine needles collect on your roof? If so, they can provide tinder for flying embers. Cleaning the leaves and needles off your roof each spring could save your home from embers.
Make sure soffit and fascia areas on your eaves are enclosed with metal siding or metal screens to prevent embers from blowing into your attic.
Make sure your foundation is closed off as well. An open area along your foundation or under a wooden deck can catch sparks and set a cabin on fire. Enclose an open foundation or wooden deck with metal skirting or screening. Once again, cleaning up last years leaves and needles from around the foundation and deck could save your home should a wildfire threaten.
Create a defensible space
The most important Firewise activities a homeowner can undertake are to modify the area immediately around the house.
The zone within 30 feet of your home is the most important. Called the defensible space, this zone will determine if your home can be defended from the flames. Ideally, the fire does not burn in this zone or burns only with small, easily extinguished flames. Coniferous shrubs in this zone should be small and well-spaced. Coniferous trees should be pruned up from the ground 6 to 10 feet to keep the fire from climbing into the crowns of the trees. A conifer crown fire in this zone can be a death sentence for your home. Open defensible space allows firefighters room to work around the building to protect it.
Too many trees and shrubs against the house can be a problem. Evergreen shrubs such as junipers and cedars typically have lots of dead foliage and branches inside the crown. They are spark catchers. The combination of dried fuel and flammable foliage against the house and under the eaves only needs a few burning embers to become a disaster. Well-irrigated shrubs are better, but may still pose significant risks when fire danger is high.
Landscaping with hardwood (deciduous) trees and shrubs can help. During the summer fire season, hardwoods normally pose a barrier to fire spread. Unfortunately, they dont provide much protection in spring before they leaf out, and they actually increase the hazard in fall when leaves are dead and dry.
Fire threat to homes in the fall normally increases because of the millions of dried leaves blowing about. These leaves can blow up against the foundation and under decks where they can catch and spread fire.
Keep your Firewise edge
In addition to having a good defensible space that is well-landscaped, it is important that it be well-maintained. A few years of shrub growth can provide a ladder of fuels to initiate a crown fire.
Keep other fuels out of the defensible space. Firewood, brush piles, garden sheds, and debris piles are hazards. Perhaps the most dangerous thing you can do is to pile your firewood near the back door. While convenient in January, such a firewood pile invites disaster by the end of March. Firewood should be used or moved before April. All firewood should be stockpiled outside the defensible space during the fire season, from April to November.
Take community action
There are many things you as the homeowner can do to make your home Firewise, but the community must be involved too. Improving road access to your neighborhood is a community responsibility. If your area lacks a permanent water supply, work together to install dry hydrants. This special hydrant connects to a water source such as a stream or lake. During a fire, a fire engine hooks up to it and sucks water from the water source.
Your community, from the city planner to the fire chief, must work together to identify neighborhoods at risk, coordinate activities that reduce the risks, and plan new developments that have low fire risk.
One place that has involved community is Stillwater Township. Human Geography students at Stillwater Area High School participated in a Firewise project. After a short introduction by DNR Firewise specialists, the students went to work using Geographic Information System mapping software and scanned aerial photographs, which were donated to the school for student use. The students found each home in the community on the photos, clicked on its image to record its location, then gave it a defensibility rating based on the space around it.
If a home had no trees within 30 feet, they rated it low risk. If buried in trees, the home was rated high risk. In an afternoon, the students rated more than 910 homes that existed when the photos were taken in May 2000. The students then analyzed the data with GIS technology to find a neighborhood with a high concentration of at-risk homes. They took a field trip to this high-risk neighborhood and went door-to-door, offering to do a comprehensive rating of each home.
Using this rating, the students informed homeowners about factors that increased their homes risk. In some cases, thick pine trees grew in the defensible space. In other cases, house addresses were not visible from the street. Some homes had long, narrow driveways that would be nearly impossible to navigate with a firetruck or ambulance.
The Stillwater fire chief has been involved in the project from the start. He helped the students in the classroom rate the homes, and he is using their findings to discuss options with the town council. In addition to helping make their community safer, these students have learned how to use GIS to solve real-world problems.
The Stillwater project is an example of Firewise working with the community. The students participate in an activity that teaches new skills and directly affects their community. In the future, when they become homeowners and community leaders, they will pass the importance of fire safety along to their families and their communities. The school becomes directly involved in community affairs and receives the license for the GIS software. The Stillwater fire chief gets a report on wildland fire risks and an active Firewise program to help increase fire safety in the district. The DNR gets a new set of cooperators, some good data, and another Firewise community. Sounds like a winner.
To learn more about Firewise, contact your local DNR Forestry office or visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/firewise.
Tom Eiber, a forester for 30 years, is DNR's Firewise project consultant. Dave Schuller, a forester in the DNR metro region, is a Firewise specialist working with communities.