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How to protect your home from wildfires

The threat of wildfires is growing due to climate change. Safety measures are particularly important for those in high-risk areas, but experts say that fire preparedness is a good idea everywhere. Here are the steps you can take.

All it takes is one ember, thrown from a wildfire. Aided by the wind, these pulsing red bits of wood can quietly sneak thousands of feet from the fire line and land on a property. Ignition can happen in a matter of minutes. Soon, only ashes remain.

Wildfires are growing in size and frequency due to climate change, according to the World Health Organization. Common ways that wildfires cause property damage include not only embers but also direct flames and radiant heat, which in tightly packed communities can lead to a cascade of destruction.

But, experts say, there are ways to protect our homes from the threat. Here’s how.

Hardening your home

Starting with the home itself, several key alterations and upgrades can help prevent it from catching fire.

In a review of the 2018 Camp fire in California, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found embers that had flown more than two miles from the fire line. The roof is one place that such embers frequently land.

The highest-rated roofs — Class A roofs — provide the most fire protection and are commonly made of concrete, clay roof tiles, fiberglass asphalt composition shingles or metal. Among the lowest-rated material are wood shakes — though they can be treated with a fire retardant.

“The edge between the dormer and the roof is where embers can accumulate,” said Alexander Maranghides, a fire protection engineer at NIST.

Embers can also find their way into your home through vents, such as those in the attic or in the roof’s overhang. Yana Valachovic, a forest adviser affiliated with the University of California, notes there have been technological developments in this area. For instance, there are vents designed to swell when exposed to heat as a way of sealing off a house.

But Valachovic says that fine wire mesh can also do the trick. Steve Hawks, with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, recommends mesh with no more than one-eighth inch gaps — any bigger and embers could get inside and “burn the house down.”

Siding is another area to pay attention to, said Roy Wright, president of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. He explained that fire-resistant materials can better withstand contact with flames or radiant heat. “If you have stucco or concrete cement board, that’s not going to ignite,” said Wright. Wood, however, can burn, and vinyl siding can melt, providing little protection from a fire — and possibly accelerating it.

Broken windows can flood a home with embers and make fire damage imminent. Double-pane windows are more durable than single-panel, and metal screens or noncombustible window coverings can offer even more protection, according to the Colorado State Forest Service.

Your perimeter: 0 to 5 feet

Outside your home, the goal is to remove as much potential fuel for the wildfire as possible. The first five feet are particularly crucial, experts say. “By doing that first five feet, you basically interrupt the pathway of the flames to the house,” said Valachovic.

Look for trees, shrubs or other plants in proximity to the house, she said. Mulch and pine needles are potential accelerants that are often overlooked. Remove or replace them with less flammable material like stone, or healthy flame-resistant plants, such as French lavender or sage.

Consider replacing wood fencing that connects to the home with nonflammable material such as metal.

Many fire risks hide in unexpected places. For example, Wright says that often, people only pay attention to the top of their deck. He emphasizes the need to look underneath as well. Valachovic said she even makes sure to bring her straw broom off the porch during fire season.

If possible, move garbage and recycling cans farther away from the home.

Your yard: 5 to 30 feet

The goal is to reduce potential fuel and lower a fire’s intensity by spacing items away from one another. “People are imagining the big flame, but what they should imagine is the small flames creeping up to the house,” said Michele Steinberg, the wildfire division director for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). “You’re seeing homes pretty far away from the big flames igniting.”

Tree branches hanging over the home should be trimmed back. There should be at least 10 feet of distance between chimneys and tree branches, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Further out, look for items that could bring flames inward. Is there a wooden railing or fence? How about a shed or other outbuilding? Consider replacements constructed from materials such as metal or stone.

Remove dead plants and dry leaves, prune flammable vegetation and space out shrubs and trees. Firewood is best stored outside of this zone.

Objects in the yard, such as play sets and furniture, should be distanced apart from each other. Creating this space can lower the intensity of a fire should one of the items ignite.

Your surroundings: 30 to 100 feet

At the outer reaches of a property, the goal is to keep any fire low to the ground and prevent it from climbing vertically and jumping between closely spaced trees. “We want to reduce the intensity of the fire,” said Hawks. “We do that through fuel reductions.”

Active mowing or maintenance may not be as necessary, but large piles of debris should still be removed.

If possible, trees should have at least 10 feet of horizontal spacing, according to Cal Fire.

Low-hanging branches and shrubs under trees should be removed to create vertical space and prevent potential ladders for the flames.

Taking appropriate action in each of the risk zones can help improve the chances of your home surviving a fire.

The website details risk levels in communities across the country. Preventive measures are particularly important for those with the greatest exposure. But Steinberg, with the NFPA, says the possibility of accidental ignitions — from grills or cigarettes to fireworks — means that fire preparedness practices “are a good idea pretty much everywhere.”

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Aaron Steckelberg is a senior graphics reporter who creates maps, charts and diagrams that provide greater depth and context to stories over a wide range of topics. He has worked at the Post since 2016.
Tik Root covers climate and climate solutions for The Washington Post. He joined in 2021. Root started his career as a freelance journalist in Yemen, and has since filed from five continents for outlets such as National Geographic, the New York Times and the Atlantic, among others.