A firewise home is a non-combustible home. What your home is built from, where it is located in relation to the surrounding topography, and how you have maintained your home all play critical firewise roles. Many of us that already have a home in the wildland/urban interface cannot determine the best place to situate the structure on the landscape, nor can we change some of the materials the home was built with. These are considerations for those planning a new home in the WUI. Other factors can be changed, such as shake roofs, but are expensive and need to be looked at as a long-term goal. And then there is what you can do now to enhance and improve the ability of your home to withstand a wildfire.
Your Firewise Home will address all of these issues and more. An inventory of existing conditions is the place to start and the Home Fire Evaluation section provides the information to accomplish this goal. Next you can learn about Firewise Building Materials and other important factors such as water, access and signage, and how to protect your vehicles and recreational gear, such as boats and campers, from damage or loss to a wildfire.
Home Wildfire Evaluations
Fire and land management agencies cannot help prevent wildfire disasters without homeowner participation. If you live in the wildland/urban interface (WUI), recognize that you, as the homeowner, are responsible for reducing your home’s vulnerability to wildfire. Wildland firefighters will often not protect homes that aren’t firewise and don’t have adequate defensible space, both for safety reasons and because such efforts are unlikely to be successful.
Essential to a successful firewise landscape is a home wildfire evaluation. In order to make changes that will allow your structure to withstand the brunt of a wildfire, without the assistance of firefighters or fire equipment, you begin by gathering information. Several counties and rural fire departments in Idaho conduct home evaluations in high-risk areas. To find out if your county or local fire department provides this service for homeowners, contact your local disaster services coordinator, fire protection coordinator, or fire chief.
You can evaluate your home and outbuildings yourself by using standard guides and forms for home evaluations in Idaho. Standard forms evaluate two main areas of concern for structures in the wildland/urban interface: the ignitability of your home when exposed to radiant heat, convection, or firebrands and embers; and structural hazards, including the location and design of your home and other structures, as well as vegetative fuel hazards and other considerations.
Firewise Building Materials
As a homeowner, you are responsible for reducing your home’s vulnerability to wildfire. One of the most important steps to accomplishing this goal is to use building materials that are resistant to ignition from a wildfire.
Building Codes for New Construction
If you have not built your home yet, try to place structures on flat ground. Fires burn uphill more rapidly than down or across a flat. Avoid draws, as they can serve as a chimney, creating more intense fires that spread rapidly with uphill drafts.
Many communities in Idaho have adopted all or part of the 2006 International Wildland/Urban Interface Code and the 2006 International Fire Code. These codes set standards for new construction in the following areas:
- Ignition resistant building materials
- Ignition resistant building techniques
- Driveway access for fire apparatus
- Vegetation plans for new residences and subdivisions that provide defensible space
- Sprinkler systems on structures over 5000 sq. ft.
- Proper address labels for emergency response
- Other restrictions on outdoor burning, outside storage, etc.
Specific examples of countywide codes and building ordinances in the WUI are available from the Idaho State Fire Plan Working Group
Retrofitting Your Existing Home
These components are usually the most expensive to replace in a retrofit, but will be well worth the price if your home is threatened by a wildfire.
- The roof. The roof is often the most vulnerable part of your home and outbuildings to ignition during a wildfire. Always use a rated roofing material. Rated roofing materials range from Class C (able to withstand light exposure to fire, like asphalt shingles) to Class A (able to withstand severe exposure to fire, like metal roof seaming). Wood shake roofs are not rated and in many cases, offer almost certain ignition of your home.
- Siding. Use of fire-resistant materials on exterior walls will provide a greater level of protection to your home. Wall materials that resist heat and flames include cement, plaster, stucco, and masonry, such as stone brick or block. If you have vinyl siding, consider using metal screening over openings that will become exposed if the siding melts or falls away.
- Windows. Exposure to the heat of a wildfire can cause glass on exterior walls to fracture and collapse, allowing firebrands to enter the home. Use of double-paned or tempered glass can help reduce this risk by providing an added layer of protection. Screens should have metal frames as well as metal, not plastic, mesh.
There are many relatively inexpensive things you can do now to better protect your existing home from wildland fire.
- All fuels should be removed from overhangs and other attachments
such as room additions and bay windows. Regularly remove debris from roof, gutters and other area
s, such as corners and under stairs, where often accumulates. Special attention should also be paid to the areas under decks, porches, carports, and around fences.
- Eaves, fascias, soffits, and vents should be “boxed” or enclosed with metal screens to reduce the size of the openings. Vent openings should be screened to help prevent firebrands or other objects larger than 1/8” from entering your home and you should have spark arresters on your chimneys.
- Outdoor furniture and accessories are common sources of ignition. Consider replacing wooden or wicker tables and chairs with ones made from nonflammable material such as metal and glass. Cushions, umbrellas, furniture covers, door mats, planters and window boxes are all areas where embers can collect, smolder and start a fire well after the flaming front has passed.
- Pay attention to places where combustible materials meet each other, for example, where a wooden fence is attached to the wooden stairs that leads to a wooden deck. Separate these areas with a span of non-flammable material.
- Store boats, campers, and other recreational vehicles in an enclosed area
or away from your home.
Though your home’s fire resistance should not depend on a water supply, water supplies that are available after the power goes out and are easy for firefighters to find and use may save your home. Pools and ponds not only look great and provide recreational opportunities, but make excellent firebreaks, improve wildlife habitat, and are excellent sources of water.
- If you depend on a well for your water supply, consider purchasing a gas-powered generator to provide back-up power to the pump in the event of losing electrical service.
- Consider developing an emergency water supply.
- If you install (or have) an on-site back-up source of water, make sure it is well marked and accessible to firefighters.
- Make at least 2,500 gallons of water available for emergency backup.
- Clearly mark water supplies and provide access to fire trucks. Firefighters usually need at least 16 feet to access a water source.
- Make sure hoses, sprinklers and/or your irrigation equipment is well maintained.
- Use your water wisely and concentrate irrigation efforts in the areas immediate surrounding your home.
- If you are not able to water your lawn regularly, keep the turf short.
Access and Signage
Understanding why access is important can be stated simply – firefighting equipment needs to get in and you need to get out. There are situations when firefighters and other emergency response agencies may be able to access your property only to find that they cannot find you or get to your home because of your road.
To ensure you can be found:
- Your property should be clearly marked with a nonflammable sign, with numbers and letters at least four inches high on a contrasting background. Make sure vegetation does not obstruct the sign.
To ensure access:
- You should have two ways to access your property in the event that one route is threatened.
- Roads should be wide enough for two-way traffic, and vegetation should be cleared 10 feet from along roadsides and driveways.
- If a two-way road is not possible, turnouts should be constructed.
- Vehicles from firefighting agencies must have adequate access to your property. Fire equipment has difficulty negotiating excessively steep (greater than 12 percent) or sharp roads.
- Bridges should be strong enough to support fire equipment and the water they carry (at least 34,000 pounds) and be identified as such.
- If access to your site leads to a cul-de-sac, a minimum of 50 feet turnaround radius is needed.
Vehicles and Recreational Equipment
More than one home has been ignited because a flaming brand landed in the boat a homeowner parked next to their house. Campers, 4-wheelers, lawn mowers, canoes and kayaks all provide landing places for flaming brands and embers.
If you have vehicles or recreational gear stored outside:
- Park keep vehicles and campers away from the house and make sure all windows are closed and truck beds are kept clear of debris.
- Cover or over-turn recreational equipment such as canoes and kayaks to prevent embers form landing in them and starting a blaze.