Wildfires continue to be a constant and deadly threat across North America, and the risk intensifies with soaring annual temperatures, strong winds and severe drought conditions. More than 78,000 wildfires scorch over 12.4 million acres across the United States and Canada each year. Fanned by high winds and feeding on parched grass, trees and shrubs for tinder, these fires put thousands of homes at risk each year, or destroy them outright.
In 2017, tens of thousands of acres in California, British Columbia and Oregon alone burned. Many people believe wildfires are just a summer problem. That’s when the forests are drier and there are more people out camping and hiking, which can unfortunately lead to accidental fires. Summer is also when there are more lightning strikes, and those are still the primary cause of wildfires. That said, in September 2017, towns in Idaho had to cancel public and school events because of heavy smoke from local fires; at the same time, firefighters in Oregon were battling a fire which burned nearly three months, well into late fall.
Although we tend to think wildfires are more likely to happen in the western parts of North America, Ontario saw nearly 300,000 acres of forest burned by 776 fires in 2017. The Florida Everglades have been known to catch on fire, blowing ash into the western suburbs of South Florida and coming near communities in the central and southwestern parts of the state, usually in the drier winter months.
The threat of a spreading wildfire is even more acute in communities with small lots where homes are built very closely together. Windy conditions make it easy for fire to jump from one home to the next. It is critical that property managers and community association boards in high-risk locations develop and communicate fire prevention and safety measures to help protect homes, communities and their surroundings. Not taking preventative and safety measures puts your community at risk that may be avoidable.
The first thing you need to know is the risk of fire in your area. Check with your local fire department and emergency management officials; they will know the risk of fire in your area and have more specialized information on things you can do to help keep your family, property and community safe. If you do live in a wildfire risk zone, it’s very important that you learn what you need to do – and then do it – to reduce the risk of fire to your home.
To get you started, we spoke with Brian Taylor, executive director of the Talega Maintenance Corporation, a private community in Southern California. Taylor has extensive experience working with county and state fire authorities on fire prevention. Check out his helpful advice below.
1. Clean your gutters.
Flaming embers that go airborne are flying wildfire hazards – and if the wind carries them to gutters clogged with debris and sediment, it adds fuel to the fire. Reduce this risk by performing a thorough gutter clean-out to give the gunk the heave-ho, especially before summer heat or dry winter conditions set in.
2. Pressure wash your roof.
Flying embers love the opportunity to land on a nice big roof – so much easier than trying to get a foothold inside a narrow gutter. If the roof is covered with flame-fanning dirt, dry leaves, tree branches and dust, you’ve got a conflagration waiting to happen. Regularly pressure cleaning your roof will help keep roof fires at bay.
3. Obey or implement a fuel modification zone.
California residents know that this area around your home – typically chosen by the local fire department based on previous fires and existing foliage and structures – serves as a critical buffer between your home and approaching wildfires. Within this zone, all flammable plants, trees and vegetation, both native and ornamental, must be removed, modified or replaced with fire-resistant and draught-tolerant plants.
Although the term is specific to California and isn’t the law in most other places, it’s still a good idea to take a look at the area around your home and eliminate the risks that you can if you live in a fire-prone climate. For example, if a tree that could catch fire has branches that loom over your roof, have them trimmed back, away from the building, to reduce the risk of fire spreading to your roof or remove the tree entirely.
4. Clear space around your home.
Along with removing or replacing flammable plants, it’s important to create a defensible perimeter, or space perimeter, by pruning or thinning out trees and brush within 30 feet from your home. Beyond those 30 feet, you must continually remove dead wood, low-hanging tree branches and debris to avoid providing tinder for approaching flames.
5. Follow the landscaping rules.
If you live in an area that is at high-risk for fires, both your local fire department and your community association may have landscaping rules that will help reduce risks and damage to your home and community if wildfires strike. Attending information sessions and reading community newsletters about those rules can provide a wealth of information and resources to help keep your home and family safe.
6. Plant smarter for your area.
Fire-resistant plants retain moisture in dry areas, so they’re typically recommended for residents and community associations seeking to add foliage to their homes or communities. Local plant nurseries and reputable landscapers will have advice on the best plants for your area; if your area is at high risk for fires, the plants that are native to your climate are likely to be good choices. If you live in a managed community, ask your community association manager for recommendations to safely beautify your yard.
As for trees, most are flammable, and flames can spread to homes by leapfrogging from one treetop to another. Pine trees, palm trees and various species of Italian cypress have proven to be the most combustible, so consider selecting other types of trees and plant them a safe distance from your home – and spaced at proper intervals. The U.S. Fire Administration suggests spacing trees 30 feet apart for safety. Again, your reputable landscaper or local nursery should be able to advice you on the right choices.
7. Prune overgrown plants and trees.
Shaggy and overgrown trees and plants are a major fire hazard, so be sure to prune your trees to a maximum height of eight to 10 feet. Make sure to do this before your driest season. If your community prunes common landscape areas annually or semi-annually, perhaps your community manager can look into offering this service to homeowners as well or refer homeowners to a trusted vendor who can.
8. Test your fire equipment regularly.
At least twice a year, check all of your fire warning and suppression equipment. That includes fire extinguishers, ceiling sprinkler systems and stairwell guidance system if you’re in a high-rise. Regular testing throughout the year will ensure they’re functional and up to date. If you’re on the board of your community association, make sure that your property manager conducts regular inspections of this equipment in common areas. Your local fire department may also be able to help with equipment testing and inspection.
9. Have an evacuation plan.
If a fire does threaten your community, it’s important to have an evacuation plan ready. Make sure that all members of your family know where to go and how to get there. As soon as a fire breaks out in the area, you want to make sure you and your family are prepared to leave. It’s important to keep your necessary documents including insurance paperwork, medications, non-perishable food, water and pet supplies in a very handy place so you’re able to grab and go with little notice. It’s also a good idea to have all of this information documented, scanned and backed up to an offsite or cloud storage service in case you don’t have time to collect everything.
If you are on the board of your community association, communicate the importance of evacuation planning to your community. Send seasonal reminders as appropriate, using all available channels: your community website, newsletter, in-person meetings, email and social media. A great property management company will provide your community with a 24/7 mass communication system that will allow you and your management team to provide all residents with alerts and critical information during a wildfire emergency.
Wildfires are dangerous and unpredictable, but understanding the risk and taking proactive steps to protect your home and surroundings can really pay off. For more valuable wildfire safety information and guidelines, check out the helpful resources below:
U.S. Fire Administration
Centers for Disease Control
American Red Cross
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Canadian Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
Canadian Red Cross
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