Homeowners are key to preventing wildfire losses, by Dr. Robert Sieben

It’s Time to Wake Up and Get Real About Wildfire Risk

We are experiencing a perfect storm as record heat, drought, massive numbers of dead trees, and dying forests are leading to the spread of wildfires like we have never seen before throughout the western United States and Canada. Instead of naively thinking your homeowner’s insurance is going to make up for the trauma of losing your home, or that overwhelmed firefighters are going to be able to save it, it’s time you woke up and got real. Standing on your roof with a garden hose is unlikely to save it. But actions like those described here very well could.

Don’t Choose to be a Victim

Don’t choose to be a wildfire victim. Protect your home while there is still time. The information on how to do this is available to you if you will only use it. You, the homeowner, are key to mitigating losses to wildfires. “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” Victor Hugo said, and the time to face the dangers of these fires is long past due.

You own the home ignition zone, and no one else is going to make it safe for you, or pay you to do so.  If your home burns to the ground you could be charged $30,000 to clean up all the toxins in the soil by plastics, man-made fabrics, household appliances, electronic devices, and motor vehicles; whereas taking relatively inexpensive actions now could save your home and save you this expense. Moreover, if you persuade your neighbors to do the same, you will have a more fire safe community that will not only be likely to stop the fire from spreading, but may give firefighters a chance to defend it instead of deciding it is not salvageable. This is called triage when they are forced to determine the priorities for action in an emergency. Unfortunately, firefighters very often waste valuable time cutting back flammable vegetation the homeowner should have taken care of in the first place, limiting their effectiveness.

Prevent Ember Ignition

There are many actions you can take to increase the chance of your home surviving on its own even after you have evacuated in a hurry. Given that 70% of homes lost to wildfires are ignited by flying embers from distant sources, you need to do what you can to prevent ember ignition—e.g., don’t store a broom or bits of lumberunder your deck, and don’t stack firewood next to your house or windows, Measures like these don’t cost you anything.

Create a Non-Ignition Zone

Next, create a non-ignition zone within five feet of your house, so that embers landing here will not find enough fuel to sustain a fire that will spread to it. It’s not what you plant so much as how you maintain what you plant. Rather than planting lots of stuff you have to maintain, minimize plantings and use non-flammable materials such as paving stones, pea gravel, or large pebbles to interrupt a line of fuels leading directly to your house or wood fence. Trim branches away from windows because they can be broken by a direct flame with disastrous results. And, by all means remember to close your garage door when you evacuate in a hurry.

Create Defensible Space

Next, reduce the intensity of wildfire as it nears your home by creating effective defensible space beyond the five feet adjacent to your home through vegetation management, as appropriate to the specifics of your property. See the “Seven Steps to Create Defensible Space” in www.wildfireprevention.info for pragmatic guidelines on how to do this.

Enlist Your Community

It is inevitable that more devastating wildfires will occur and that most will be ignited by human carelessness or even arsonists. This is not going to change. But you can change your own behavior by being prepared. If only individual homeowners like you took responsibility for making their own home ignition zone fire safe, we would all be far better off. How many fires does it take to change the behavior of homeowners and get them to step up to the plate? They are in denial and haven’t a clue what they can do to reduce the risk of wildfires.

But take heart: this is a solvable problem. Do something about it and be the change-maker your community needs. The knowledge is available for free at www.wildfireprevention.info   Please use it.

--Dr. Robert Sieben; homeowner in a certified high fire hazard district in the Oakland hills; Fire Prevention Chair at Hiller Highlands Phase V for 20 years; Charter member of Oakland Firesafe Council and Oakland Wildfire Prevention District Advisory Committee; manager of wildfireprevention.info; National Fire Protection Agency certificate in “Assessing Wildfire Hazards in a Home Ignition Zone”; and author of The Homeowner’s Guide to Wildfire Prevention.  rlsieben@gmail.com