With an eye on building a culture of preparedness in America, leaders across the Federal Emergency Management Agency are speaking directly to HSToday readers on a variety of readiness concerns. Stay tuned each month for a new timely readiness column from FEMA.
Individuals can take active roles in protecting themselves and their property from wildfire. In addition to having the appropriate homeowner or renter’s insurance coverage, there are other proactive steps you can take to prevent damages and the loss of homes from wildfires.
Wildfires happen anywhere and are becoming larger and more destructive. It is critical that the message of wildfire preparedness should include activities that homeowners can take to mitigate risks to lives and property. Since 2017, wildfires nationwide have resulted in $25 billion in property loss. The 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons in the state of California have been the most destructive in its history, covering 187,000 acres and destroying 24,600 structures.
Two primary opportunities to mitigate property destruction from wildfires, as noted by the National Institute of Building Sciences:
Building Safer Homes
A study from Headwaters Economics found that building a new home to wildfire-resistant codes does not significantly increase the cost of construction. Examples of fire resistant/fire restrictive building construction include:
- Ignition-resistant construction materials for home exteriors.
- The application of non-combustible building envelope assemblies.
- The use of proper retrofit techniques in new and existing structures.
Building Safer Environments
A defensible space around your house can help prevent a fire from affecting your home. Other mitigation activities include:
- Burn debris (as allowed by local law) only on permissive burn days.
- Reduce amount of flammable materials and brush that can burn around your home or business.
- Create a “fire-free” area within the first five feet of your home using non-flammable materials and high-moisture-content plantings.
- Maintain an area that is clear of flammable materials and debris for at least 30 feet on all sides from your home or business.
- Move wood piles and propane tanks to at least 30 feet from your home.
- Prevent embers from a burning fire getting under an unprotected porch by installing wire mesh screen. Suggested mesh size is not larger than 1/8 inch.
Enhanced Building Codes
Improved building codes are an additional level of fire mitigation and protection, as these codes – adopted at a state or local level – make homes and communities more resilient to any risk. A growing number of states and communities have adopted building codes and standards set to higher performance requirements. Nearly all 50 states have adopted a version of the International Building Code and/or the International Residential Code. The practice of developing, approving, incorporating, inspection, and enforcing building codes, however, varies widely across the country. Only 31 percent of disaster-prone jurisdictions have adopted the 2015 and/or 2018 disaster-resistant building code.
Purchase Flood Insurance
In the aftermath of wildfire, flood risk increases due to the inability of charred vegetation and soil to absorb water. Subsequent rainstorms place homes directly affected by fires, or those located below or downstream of burn areas, at greater risk. Flooding after fire is often severe, as debris and ash left from the fire can form mudflows.
Purchasing flood insurance now can protect the life you’ve built and ensure financial protection from future flooding. Flood insurance can protect property owners from catastrophic financial impacts of flooding following a wildfire, as damage caused by flooding is not covered under most homeowners’ insurance policies.
Take actions now to protect your future. Wildfires develop and spread quickly, leaving little time to evacuate to a safe location. Knowing what to do to keep yourself, your family, and your pets safe is an action you can take now to protect your future. Ready.gov offers tips for safety before, during and after a wildfire.
Additional individual preparedness actions include:
Before a wildfire
- Sign up for your community’s warning system. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio also provide emergency alerts. Understand risks associated with air quality alerts.
- Know your community’s evacuation plans and find several ways to leave the area. Drive the evacuation routes and find shelter locations. Have a plan for pets and livestock.
- Gather emergency supplies, including N95 respirator masks that filter out particles in the air you breathe. Keep in mind each person’s specific needs, including an updated asthma action plan and medication. Do not forget the needs of your pets.
- Designate a room that can be closed off from outside air. Close all doors and windows. Set up a portable air cleaner to keep indoor pollution levels low when smoky conditions exist.
- Keep important documents in a fireproof, safe place. Create password-protected, digital copies.
During a Wildfire
- Evacuate immediately if authorities tell you to do so.
- If trapped, call 911 and give your location. Be aware that emergency response could be delayed or impossible. Turn on inside and outside lighting to help rescuers find you.
- Listen to EAS, NOAA Weather Radio, or local alerting systems for current emergency information and instructions.
- Use an N95 mask over your face to keep you from breathing harmful particles in the air.
- If you are not ordered to evacuate but smoky conditions exist, stay inside in a safe location or go to a community building where smoke levels are lower.
After a Wildfire
- Listen to guidance from authorities to find out when it is safe to return, and whether water is safe to drink.
- Avoid hot ash, charred trees, smoldering debris, and live embers. The ground may contain heat pockets that can burn you or spark another fire. Consider the danger to pets and livestock.
- Send text messages or use social media to reach out to family and friends. Phone systems are often busy following a disaster. Make calls only in emergencies.
- Wear a NIOSH certified-respirator dust mask and keep debris wet to minimize breathing dust particles.
- Document property damage with photographs. Conduct an inventory and contact your insurance company for assistance.
For more information on wildfire prevention and other community risk-reduction topics, visit the United States Fire Administration website at www.usfa.fema.gov.