How to protect your home from wildfire

Southern California blazes are a clarion call to take action

Published: May 16, 2014 05:30 PM
Southern California has suffered several major blazes in recent years.
Photo: Getty Images

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The recent wildfires that have burned in southern California underscore the importance of defending one's home and property from burning debris. Friday afternoon, Reuters reported that at least eight houses and an 18-unit apartment building had been destroyed by various blazes across San Deigo County. 

Homeowners obviously can't completely stop a fire that's raging out of control, but they can and should take preventive measures. The most important task is to impede the spread of embers, says George Drew, assistant vice-president of property and casualty loss prevention and safety at the insurer USAA. Embers can travel by wind for more than a mile, igniting a fire if they land on the house, or causing it to burn from within if they enter through a vent or other opening. Here are fire-prevention tips from Drew, and from Michele Steinberg, wildland fire project manager at the National Fire Protection Association:

• Don’t store things under your deck. Anything left there can become fuel for floating embers. 

• Box in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh. It can help prevent flaming debris from floating underneath, and possibly stop embers from getting in, Steinberg says. (It also may prevent wildlife from nesting there.) 

• Move flammable materials such as firewood stacks and propane tanks at least 30 feet from your home and outbuildings.

• Trim tree branches that are hanging over your roof. Fires that travel through treetops are harder for firefighters, Steinberg notes. As a rule of thumb, tree branches should be at least 10 feet away from your roof. 

• Keep your lawn hydrated. If there are water restrictions, consider xeriscaping with decorative stones and rocks around the house. Firewise, a Web site devoted to fire prevention, offers some ideas on landcaping options, as well as more homeowner tips on fire preparedness.

• Protect the roof. If your eaves are vented, put mesh screening over the openings to help prevent the entry of embers. (You also may prevent bees and other creatures from getting into your home.) 

• When building or re-roofing, choose material that's Class A fire-rated by Underwriters Laboratories. If you live the woods, avoid wood shingles.  

See Consumer Reports Buying Guide to fire extinguishers and smoke alarms (smoke alarm Ratings are available to subscribers).

Steinberg notes that trees with lots of resin and sap, like pines and junipers, are particularly flammable. Junipers also shed needles and catch debris from the wind. All of those qualities can make them catch fire and even explode, she adds. Eucalyptus sheds its bark; in a wind-blown fire, those pieces can blow against your home and cause a blaze. If you have them on your property, consider cutting them back and away from the house.

Communities that institute certain fire-prevention measures now can be officially recognized as "Firewise Communities" by the NFPA. Just this week, USAA began offering a 5-percent homeowners insurance discount to its California policyholders who live in such communities. Drew says he believes his company is the first major insurer to offer such incentives.

—Tobie Stanger

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