FirewiseVirginia

The Homeowner's Role

As a resident in a rural or forest area, you play a key role in wildfire protection. Perhaps you are already a member of a group organized to protect yourselves from fire. Cooperative groups have been formed after almost every large fire in North America, to develop protection strategies to prevent future fires and the related losses.

You are responsible for protecting your buildings and property. If you already live in, or are planning to build in rural areas, you should take fire into account. It isn't difficult. Common sense will help you plan precautions.

The Basic Steps to Wildfire Protection

  1. Understand how wildfires start and spread
  2. Choose a building site that offers natural protection
  3. Build a house that is fire-resistant, or improve the fire-resistance of your present house.
  4. Use firewise landscaping principles to reduce a fire's ability to spread easily.
  5. Follow fire-safety rules.

These steps all work together. When you are weak in one factor, another strong step may make up for it. For example, wildfire has less chance to reach the foundation if you keep material that easily burns away from the building. This way, how the construction materials used for the foundation aren't quite as important. But, if a vital step is lacking in an important area, any improvements may mean nothing. If vegetation is growing right next to the building, the building my burn even though other measures were followed.

Your Building Site

Choose the location of your house and the type of site carefully. The chance that your property will survive a wildfire could depend on the decisions you make. Read all the information in this article to find out how to avoid common and perhaps costly mistakes.

What if you already own a site? You can make many fire prevention improvements around your house and land, as suggested in this article.

Choosing a New Site

Fire Protection

You may have chosen to live in either a rural or forest area to get away from a busy city. Don't forget that the fire department may be only a small group of volunteers, located far away. Before you buy property, it is a good idea to ask local fire officials if the fire department will have trouble getting to the site that interests you. More information can be found in the subsequent section titled "access."

Slopes

Don't be tempted to build on a hillside because of the marvelous view. It could cost you your home. Level building sites are the best protection from wildfire.

If your site is near a ridge, set your home back 30 to 100 feet (10 to 30 meters) from the crest. Clear vegetation down slope from the house. Avoid narrow valleys or canyons. These act as natural chimneys during a fire, and would draw heat and flames to your home.

Improving Sites

Access

Firefighters need to get to your home quickly and safely. They also need room to move their equipment around.

  • A gate with a strong lock could stop firefighters from reaching your home in time to save it. If you must have a locked gate, leave a spare key with your local fire agency.
  • Access roads should be two-way, with broad shoulders to let emergency vehicles through. Avoid steep and winding roads. Plan grades that have no more of a rise than 10 feet in 100 feet (3 meters in 30 meters). Provide a minimum unobstructed width of 12 feet (4 meters), and a minimum unobstructed height of 14 feet (4.2 meters).
  • Try to put your driveway on the downhill side of your home or the side that faces the wind. This makes a good fire barrier.
  • Bridges have to be wide and strong enough to hold a fire truck. We recommend that the bridge should support a minimum weight of 40,000 pounds (18,100 kilograms). Ask your local fire officials what they require. They may have a small truck now, but could buy heavier equipment in the future. Ask them to check out bridges on your property, and on roads leading to your property.
  • A turnaround is ideal for the end of your private drive or road. Make sure it is at least 100 feet in diameter. Don't park on it. Clear a separate area for parking.

Make Your Home Easy to Find

Firefighters need to find your property quickly. At the entrance to your property put up a sign with your house number, road name, and any other needed details. Make sure the sign can be read from the main road. Use large, easy-to-read letters and numbers in a color that contrasts with the background. Keep trees and bushes cut back so that sign always stands out.

Stuctures

When we think of having a home in a rural or forest area we tend to dream of a cedar shake chalet with a broad, open deck and a cozy fireplace, nestled among tall pines. To protect yourself from fire, this is not the type of structure and surroundings you want. However, if this is what you already have, you can still do a lot to make your home more "firewise."

Start With Design

Your home can be fire wise and still be attractive. Protective features such as smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, water taps and enclosed eaves are easy to add. If you are building or renovating, you and your architect or builder should talk to fire safety experts and have them review your plans.

Construction Materials

Roofing

Roofs are the largest surface areas exposed to airborne sparks. Studies show that sparks setting fire to wood shake roofs are the major reason for home losses in rural and forest areas. The best roofing materials are those that have the best resistance to fire.

Metal, tile, and fiberglass roofing materials offer the best protection because they are not likely to catch fire.

Asphalt shingles and tarpaper are less protective because they are made of oil-based products which can catch fire when exposed to enough heat.

Wood, such as cedar shakes, offers the least protection. The smallest spark can set fire to dry, sun-baked wooden shingles. Note: fire retardants are available, but must be applied at regular intervals. Follow the manufacturers recommendations.

Gutters

Metal gutters are the best. Wooden and plastic gutters are a hazard. All gutters can be a danger if they are not regularly cleaned; airborne sparks can set fire to debris in them.

Outside Walls

Like roofs, walls should be built with fire-resistant materials. Stone, brick, and metal are the best. Wood and vinyl give the least protection.

Foundations

The foundation area of a building is often the first area to come into contact with a spreading wildfire. Stone, brick, and cement are the materials to use here. A closed foundation is safer than an open foundation.

  • Closed - The best foundations are made of cement block or stone. The material will not burn, and fire can't be trapped under the building, where it would set fire to beams and floor bases.
  • Open - A foundation of wood posts or cement-block pillars with no skirting around has the greatest risk and should be fire-protected. It can be improved by covering open areas with one-quarter inch (6 mm) wire mesh. If there is a good firebreak around the building (see the Landscaping section), wooden or fiberglass skirting is acceptable. Skirting also helps to reduce the accumulation of debris under the building. Note: never store flammable materials underneath.

Structural Hazards to Watch For

Roofs

A flat roof holds sparks that heat up and set fire to the roof. Sparks will roll off a steep roof, but can get caught in any roof valleys or grooves.

Eaves (the projecting roof edges) should be boxed in or have little overhang. This lessens the chance of heat or flames becoming trapped there. Gutters should be cleaned regularly.

Attic and under eave vents can draw sparks into the attic, starting a fire. Under eave vents should be put near the roofline and away from the wall.

Cover all outside vents with wire mesh, not larger than one-quarter inch (6 mm). Do not use plastic or nylon mesh as it will melt and burn.

Keep chimneys above the roofline.

Roof sprinklers can give a false sense of security. Don't forget that the pumps will fail if electricity stops, high winds can blow the water away, and water pressure is often lowered when firefighters open hydrants in public water systems.

Windows

Windows are often overlooked as fire hazards, but they can be a serious risk. Radiant heat can pass through them and set fire to curtains. More heat is radiated with large windows and they break more easily. Cracked windows shatter with heat, letting in fire and sparks.

Multi-pane windows provide insulation from trapped air and give more protection from radiant heat than single-pane windows. Tempered safety glass should be used for picture windows, sliding doors, and other large glass areas.

Protect windows from the outside with fireproof shutters. Fire -resistant draperies and metal flashing around skylights will also add protection to your home.

Heating Systems

The choice of heating systems will not affect the survival of your home in a wildfire, but it affects the extent to which your home is a fire hazard. Heating a building with a wood-burning stove or furnace increases fire hazards. The hazard increases even more when the chimney is not insulated and has no spark arresters. Spark arresters and regularly cleaned chimneys will greatly reduce the risk of starting a fire.

Firewise Landscaping

Fire wise landscaping means changing, reducing, or eliminating the amount or type of fuel near your building by creating a fuel break. The fuel break should be around all buildings and be at least 30 feet (9 m) wide, with more width on the downhill side of a slope.

Clear a 3-foot (1 m) strip around the outside of each building, right down to sand or gravel (mineral soil). This cuts down on the threat of a surface fire burning across the area and reaching the building. This strip is the first section of your fuel break.

Trees in the 30-foot (9 m) fuel break should have all branches removed up to a height of 6 to 10 feet (1 to 3 m). Space the trees so that the edges of the crowns are at least 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 m) apart.

Keep the fuel break clear of everything that could burn. Remove small trees, household debris, ground fuel, and shrubs.

A green lawn or rock gardens are good fuel breaks. Grass must be kept watered and cut, and dead grass removed.

Stone, brick, or masonry walls, free of vegetation, are good fire barriers. They can be located inside or outside of the fuel break area.

Beyond the 30 foot (9 m) fuel break area, prune branches away from power lines and outbuildings. Remove ladder fuels by cutting lower branches and any dead branches. Remove small shrubs, scrub growth, ground litter, dead trees, and older trees.

Fire-Resistant Plants

Many common plants naturally resist fire and can keep fire from spreading. Generally, well watered green plants burn slowly. Select plants that have little oil content, or that don't produce much litter, or have leaves that stay moist. All of the plants listed below will survive in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Forest Region. Your local garden center can provide more information.

Virginia Firescapes Firewise Landscaping for Woodland Homes.

Ground Covers

Scientific Name Common Name Comments
Ajuga reptans Ajuga, Bugleweed Not drought tolerant. Prefers light shade.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi Bearberry, Kinnickinick Adapts to many growing conditions. Prefers well-drained soils.
Gaultheria procumbens Wintergreen Good for woodland sites.
Juniperus horizontalis Creeping juniper Grows in many soil types. Requires good drainage, full sun.
Liriope muscari Bigblue liriope Semi-tolerant of drought.
Ophiopogon japonicum Monkeygrass Good for erosion control, drought tolerant. Prefers warm climates.
Opuntia spp. Prickly pear Native to arid regions, but very climate adaptable. Has spiny stems.
Vinca major Bigleaf periwinkle Good for erosion control, tolerates drought.

Shrubbery

Scientific Name Common Name Comments
Abelia x grandiflora Glossy abelia Adapts to many growing conditions.
Aucuba japonica Japanese aucuba Requires shade. Prefers warmer climates.
Berberis julianae Wintergreen barberry Avoid contact with spiny stems and leaves.
Buxus microphylla Japanese boxwood Partially tolerant of drought and heat.
Buxus sempervirens American boxwood Leaves and stems toxic to livestock. Applications of lime are required for plant vigor.
Camellia japonica Japanese camellia Subject to winter injury, use in warmer climates only.
Camellia sasanqua Sasanqua camellia Subject to winter injury, use in warmer climates only.
Cotoneaster dammeri Bearberry cotoneaster Tolerates wide range of conditions, use for erosion control.
Cotoneaster salicifolius Willowleaf cotoneaster Tolerates poor soils, pH adaptable. Generally pest free.
Ilex cornuta Chinese holly Very adaptable to drought, pH, and to many soil types.
Ilex crenata Japanese holly Mildly drought tolerant. Needs well drained soil.
Ligustrum japonicum Japanese privet, Waxleaf ligustrum Adapts to poor fertility, drought, sun or shade and salt.
Mahonia aquifolium Oregon grapeholly Susceptible to winter dessication.
Mahonia bealei Beale's mahonia, Leatherleaf mahonia Requires good soil drainage.
Pyracantha coccinea Pyracantha, Firethorn Tolerates drought. Avoid spines
Raphiolepis indica Indian hawthorn Salt and wind tolerant. Use in warm climates.
Yucca filamentosa Yucca, Adam's needle yucca Drought resistant and generally maintenance free.

Keeping Your Property Safe

Proper maintenance of your structure and the surrounding grounds helps considerably in protecting your home from wildfire. The guidelines presented here apply at any stage of construction or occupation of the site.

Fire-safe Storage

Store items that could easily catch fire at least 30 feet (9 m) away from your home. They should be outside your 30-foot (9 m) fuel break. These items include:

  • Fuel
  • Firewood
  • Oil and propane tanks
  • Brush and slash
  • Gasoline
  • Paint and Solvents

Get rid of brush and slash by chipping or composting. Gasoline, paint, and solvents can be very dangerous; store these materials in a cool, well-aired area, away from other flammable materials. Clean up spills and safely dispose of soiled rags, following local environmental rules for disposal.

Yard Waste

Don't burn yard wastes. This may start a wildfire. You can make us of all material such as grass clippings, hedge trimmings, or dead plants. Plow or roto-till it into your garden, or make compost or mulch with it.

Composting

There are several ways to do this. The easiest is to put all garden and yard waste in one pile in a back corner of your property. The waste will slowly decompose (break down). If you want it to break down faster, your environmental agency or Cooperative Extension Service office can advise you of various methods.

Mulching

Spread garden and lawn waste in thin layers on the ground. For example, grass clippings, leaves, and compost can be placed around garden vegetables and flowers to keep down weeds and retain moisture. Mulching will also keep the soil around your plants cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

If you must burn yard wastes, check with your local fire agency for fire permit regulations and safety information.

Fire Safe Lifestyle

Make sure you and your family are prepared for a fire emergency.

  • Keep firefighting equipment handy. This includes fire extinguishers, buckets, shovels, ladders, and lengths of hose.
  • Develop a fire escape plan. Practice it with your family regularly.
  • Have at least two ground floor escape exits.
  • Install smoke detectors or alarms and test them monthly. Replace batteries annually, or as recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Set up a fire-watch with neighbors. This can protect your home when you are not there.
  • Have reliable telephones or two-way radios and keep the local number for reporting fires handily.

Your Home Check-up

  • Mark the entrance to your property with a sign that can be easily seen and read.
  • Cut grass short around your buildings.
  • Clear a 3-foot (1 m) strip right down to sand or gravel around all buildings.
  • Create defensible space around your buildings by creating a 30-foot (10 m) wide fuel break with additional space on downward slopes.
  • Extend this defensible space by removing dead wood, ladder fuels, and thinning out grown beyond the 30-foot (10 m) fuel break.
  • Store materials that easily catch fire away from main buildings.
  • Put skirting or mesh around open foundations.
  • Replace wooden shingles with fiberglass ones, metal, or regularly treat the wooden shingles with a retardant.
  • Put fire retardant on wood siding, or, better still, brick the outside of your home. Metal and stone are also good, fire resistant siding materials.
  • Close in the ends of eaves, and put metal screens on vents.
  • Insulate chimneys, and put spark arresters on them.
  • Keep roofs and gutters clear of debris.
  • Keep firefighting equipment handy. This includes fire extinguishers, buckets, shovels, ladders, and lengths of hose.
  • Develop a fire escape plan. Practice it regularly with your family.
  • Have at least two ground floor escape exits.
  • Install smoke detectors or alarms and test them regularly. Replace batteries annually, or as recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Set up a fire-watch in your neighborhood. This can protect your home when you are not there.
  • Have reliable telephones or two-way radios and keep the local number for reporting fires handy.

Tips if you are planning to build or purchase in a rural or forested area:

  • Choose as flat a site as possible.
  • Avoid narrow, steep, or winding roads and driveways.
  • Place driveways on the downhill side of your home, or the side toward the prevailing wind, to act as a fire barrier.
  • Do not build on poles or pilings.
  • Use roofing and siding material that won't catch fire.
  • Keep chimneys above the roofline.
  • Install water taps on two sides of your home and near each outbuilding. Attach hoses to each tap.
  • Use firewise landscaping techniques in the design of your yard. Using your yard to create defensible space is the most important fire safety practice.
    • Manage the vegetation to provide a fuel break of 30 feet (10 m).
    • Use fire-resistant plants.
    • Masonry walls at least 2 feet (60 cm) high provide additional protection.

The guidelines are generally accepted in most states and provinces. However, check with your local officials to find out what local regulations may apply. Rural and forested areas sometimes have special building and zoning codes.

Last modified: Tuesday, 25-Nov-2014 12:16:23 EST