A Guide to
Forest & Wildfires
In 2020 alone, California has experienced some of the largest wildfires in its recorded history due in part to skyrocketing temperatures, dry conditions, and instigators such as lightning strikes.
As of early September 2020, over 2 million acres have been torched, which is now the official record for the state of California. It surpassed the previous record of 2 million acres burned in 2018, which at the time were the deadliest and most damaging the state had experienced in decades.
In 2017, the La Tuna fire in Southern California burned more than 7,200 acres and jumped over one of the busiest interstates inside the Los Angeles county lines.
Before the La Tuna fire ignited, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated damage from the 2017 wildfires at around $10 billion.
As of September 2017, more than 8 million acres of U.S. land had burned from wildfires.
What We Learned From The Wildfire Season
One of the hardest lessons from these fire seasons was that homeowners are often more affected by the wild blazes than they think. The fires that plagued Northern California’s wine region in 2017 destroyed over 8,400 structures, more than half of which were residential dwellings.
Your home doesn’t have to be tucked into the woods to be at risk of damage from wildfires. As we saw in with Tubb’s Fire, which blazed through the populous city of Santa Rosa, California, fires fueled by weather conditions, topography and vegetation can wreak havoc on wilderness and homes spread across hundreds of miles. Sometimes even densely populated areas.
How Can We Apply The Lessons Learned?
Let’s dive into the basics of forest fires, and how homeowners can protect themselves from damage but immediately and long-term.
What Causes Forest Fires?
How a forest fire starts is pretty simple. Forest fires are either caused by a human, or via a natural conductor.
Natural Forest Fires
Natural forest fires are generally started by lightning, with a very small percentage started by spontaneous combustion of dry fuel like sawdust or leaves.
Human Forest Fires
Human forest fires are caused by a wider-variety of things like smoking, recreation, arson or other equipment.
Lightning was, in most places, the only ignition source before humans started to use fire. Now, human-caused fires make up a greater percentage of total forest fires started.
On the other hand, natural fires tend to cause a larger total area burned.
How Wildfires Spread
According to a white paper conducted by North Carolina State, the distance a wildfire spreads is influenced by three major characteristics:
Components like temperature and wind play a significant role in the spread of wildfire. Air temperature has a direct influence on fire behavior because of the heat requirements for ignition and combustion. Wind increases the supply of oxygen, which can make a fire burn more rapidly. Additionally, wind can change direction and intensity throughout the day which can make the wildfire change direction and expand more substantially.
The characteristics of the land can change how a fire is tackled and how it can spread. For instance, an area surrounded by water won’t burn as much as land caught in a drought. Additionally, the slope of the land can manipulate the convection and radiation of a fire making it spread more or less based on conditions.
As you may assume, vegetation can be the fuel for a fire. Dry conditions and trees can feed the blaze and give it longevity. Characteristics of highly flammable plants might include, dry and dead leaves or twigs, dense foliage or foliage with low moisture, and peeling bark.
All plants are flammable if not pruned occasionally. And, for fires that have made it into residential areas, tree branches that are overgrown and not properly trimmed are exceptionally vulnerable to catching fire.
The fire triangle, which is comprised of oxygen, heat, and fuel is a slightly more scientific look how fires start and spread. A fire needs all three elements to live, by eliminating one can you suppress a fire. Until one element is removed, wildfires will continue to grow and spread.
What Homeowners Must Know About Decreasing Risk of Property Loss During Forest Fires
There are steps homeowners can take to protect themselves in the event of a wildfire. Each of the following steps either prepares your home for a fire to lessen the risk of ignitability or protects you in the aftermath.
Mitigate Loss and Insure Yourself Properly
As a bare minimum, every homeowner should have a homeowners insurance policy. And, most likely, if you have a mortgage, homeowner’s insurance is already required.
Still, it’s important to remember that not all homeowners insurance policies are created equally. Some may not cover fires, others may cover a house fire but not wildfires.
If you live in an area that is high risk for wildfires, you should consider, and verify, your policy covers some of the following components of a comprehensive homeowners insurance policy.
Helps cover expenses related to repairing or rebuilding your home.
Personal property coverage
Is a financial safeguard if you need to replace any of your belongings that were destroyed in a fire.
If you aren’t able to live in your home because of a wildfire or other natural disaster, ensure your homeowners insurance covers living expenses while you rebuild your home or until you can return to your property.
Other structural protection
If you have structures like a shed or gazebo on your property it might be important to add additional structural protection to your insurance policy.
Clear Flammable Debris from Your Home
We covered some of the ways wildfires spread in the sections above. Fires spreading by vegetation specifically relates to homeowners who keep a lawn or trees around their house. Pruning trees can significantly reduce the risk of wildfires igniting or spreading further. Additionally, removing low hanging vegetation that can ignite, or spark on electric.
Learn About (and Act on) Defensible Space
Creating defensible space is essential to improving your home’s chance of surviving a wildfire. In order to create defensible space, homeowners should clear or reduce fuels to slow the spread of fire is known as creating defensible space.
Think of defensible space as the buffer between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any wildland area that surround it.
Or as Cal Fire says, create a “lean, clean and green zone” by removing all flammable vegetation within 30 feet immediately surrounding your home. If possible, 100 feet defensible space is ideal.
Defensible space is also important for the protection of the firefighters defending your home.
Reduce Structural Ignitability
A property’s landscape and building material can make or break a homeowner’s fire safety. As of 2008, homeowners began building with more ignition-resistant construction for roofs, gutters, vents, walls and windows.
If your property is older than 2008, consider updates to your home to decrease the risk of ignitability.
It’s also necessary to remove dead branches overhanging your roof or your chimney. If tree branches hang lower than six feet from the ground, it’s wise to trim or remove these branches as they can easily catch fire.
Create A Plan for You and Your Family
Even if you take precautions, wildfires are unpredictable and can force your community and household to evacuate. In the event of an emergency or evacuation, make sure you and your family have a plan. For example:
Make a checklist of things that are important, and if danger is nearing, collect these items for an easy escape.
Make sure your vehicle is equipped with an emergency supply kit complete with food, water and clothing in the event you are unable to find shelter right away.
Ensure your home address is labeled clearly in the event an ambulance, law enforcement officer or firefighter need to respond. It’s advised to make your address numbers at least 3 inches tall and on a contrasting background.
If you do need to evacuate, shut all windows and doors but leave them unlocked so first responders can act quickly.
Trimming and Removing Your Trees Can Help Protect Against Forest Fires
The more you know about wildfires, the more you can do to protect your property. One of the easiest and most meaningful first steps you can take is to trim the trees around your property.
Tree trimming can be done by you or a professional. There are many factors to consider like:
- Tree size
- Complexity of the work
- Tree condition
If a tree is near or tangled up in a power line, then extra precautions and considerations need to come into play during the tree removal process. While this can add to the expense of tree removal, it also makes the service necessary as the current position of the tree poses an immediate fire danger.