Last year, California’s skies went red like a scene straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie. In August 2020 alone, four of California’s largest wildfires burned more than 2.1 million acres, destroyed more than 5,000 structures, and killed 22 people.
When this year’s fire season started, we reached out to Michele Steinberg, Director of Wildfire at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Michele has been a part of the NFPA for more than 20 years and recently stopped by the vipHome Podcast to share essential wildfire home protection tips you can use to save your house and family!
Heed the red flag warnings
Red flag warnings are when meteorologists note conditions that will help a wildfire spread quickly and grow large if there happens to be an ignition.
“Those conditions are low humidity, meaning it’s very dry, it’s windy, and it’s either very hot or starting to warm up quickly,” says Michele.
Once a red flag warning has been issued, you should take precautionary measures in your wildfire home protection plan. First, make sure you’re not going to ignite a fire.
“That means being careful with any smoking materials, being very careful or not using outdoor fire. During high fire danger times, you should even avoid using equipment like lawn mowers or weed whackers.”
You may also need to curb some summertime activities, such as using your firepit.
“Make sure you’re not lighting that fire on a windy, dry, hot day when meteorologists are saying fires could spread,” says Michele.
You should also be cognizant of your surroundings and conditions – know if there are wildfires in the area or smoke in the air, and make plans in the event of an evacuation.
Essential wildfire home protection tips
While you may want to learn how to fireproof your home from a wildfire, unfortunately that’s impossible. However, you can take steps to protect your home from a forest fire.
“Start looking around your home for the places where it’s vulnerable,” says Michele.
Starting with your house, look for areas where embers might land and ignite dead leaves, needles, mulch or other debris. Embers from a wildfire can loft into the air and travel for a mile or more to start spot fires on or near homes. Look at potential fuel for the fire on your property out to about 100 feet and address any possible hazards.
Help to prevent your house from catching fire with these wildfire home protection tips:
- Clear any tinder, such as twigs, leaves, pine needles, and other dead plants, from your gutters and roof.
- Inspect siding and windows to make sure they are in good shape without cracks or openings.
- See that your home’s vents are properly screened to prevent or lessen the risk of embers entering.
- Bring any outdoor furniture or other flammable items from the deck and/or patio inside.
In the event of a red flag warning –
Become more situationally aware and plan in case of evacuation. This includes packing a “go” bag with the absolute essentials.
“We usually say pills, pets, pictures,” says Michele. “I’ve even heard from people who’ve survived wildfires – they’ll put post-its inside of a cabinet with ‘take this, take this, take this.’ That way, in the moment when they’re freaking out because they’ve got 10 minutes to leave, they can open it up and see exactly what they need to take.”
Consider packing water for a few days, and take any essential electronics, such as laptops, tablets, and cell phones. You’ll also need to prepare an evacuation plan.
“Think about how you’ll go and where you’ll go,” says Michele. “What will you do if you’re at work and your children are at school? Think of how you’re going to get in touch with each other to know everybody’s safe.”
Similar to a house fire, you’ll need to communicate with each other in a safe manner, so a family member won’t get into a dangerous situation thinking someone has been left behind.
Your evacuation plan also needs vehicle preparation, including:
- Making sure your car is working and has sufficient gas.
- Parking your vehicle in the driveway facing out, so you can pull out (in case of heavy smoke that may impact your vision).
- Not parking your car in the garage (in case of a power outage).
- Not going back for anything.
“Don’t go back for that last item because nothing is worth your life,” says Michele.
Learn additional fire safety tips from the NFPA in 11 Home Fire Facts That Will Alarm You.
Opt-in to red flag warning and local alerts
Unfortunately, the warning system for wildfires is not consistent throughout the U.S. Some jurisdictions require homeowners to opt-in to messages to get an alert.
“Some of these incidents we’ve seen, particularly in California, have blown up at nighttime or early in the morning when you’re not looking out the window and you’re not aware.”
This also can be an issue with tourists.
“If they’re visiting Napa County, for example, do they know that they should have alerts while they’re staying in a hotel?”
Whether you live in a high-risk area or are simply visiting one, stay informed about the local conditions and if possible, opt-in to any emergency communications. This way, you’ll be alerted to any dangerous situations and know how to react.
Moving into an area prone to wildfires?
You might be thinking, “Will a concrete house survive a wildfire?”
Yes, but you don’t have to be limited to a concrete home.
“There are certain kinds of risks for a home that are very difficult to mitigate, like an earthquake or coastal flooding,” says Michele, “but for fire, it’s usually pretty easy, relatively speaking.”
Most traditional roofing material, such as asphalt, is tested to be non-combustible. You can have wood or vinyl siding, but make sure flammable materials, like big shrubs or trees, are at least five feet away from the foundation. Mulch, too, should be raked out five feet, and opt for gravel or bare earth near your home.
For windows, look for double-paned, tempered glass, and close or use screens on eaves, vents, and other open areas that can allow embers to enter.
“Screening will not completely prevent ember entry, but could mitigate a lot of the worst of it,” says Michele.
One of the most common causes of home fires is cooking. Learn how to prevent a cooking fire in your home in 15 Holiday Fire Safety Tips That’ll Save Your Feast & Home.
Understand the inherent risk of wildfires
Many homeowners think, “This won’t happen to me,” but in reality, it can and does happen to many homeowners each year.
“If I had a wish, it would be that everybody knew if they were at risk during wildfire season and what to do in that situation – because knowledge is power,” says Michele.
The NFPA tries to engage homeowners in areas prone to wildfire damage on Wildfire Community Preparedness Day, the first Saturday in May.
Explains Michele, “The more you plan, prepare, and know what to do, the more peace of mind you will have when the moment comes, and the more ability you’ll have to be safe.”
Visit Firewise USA® to learn additional ways to stop wildfires and prepare your home.
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