California wildfires have continued to increase in frequency, size and severity. Factors like drought, tree mortality from pine beetles, invasive plant species, and policies that encouraged aggressive – and ultimately, detrimental – fire suppression resulted in excessive fuel accumulation leading to longer wildfire seasons. In fact, in August of 2021, there were 6,347 wildfires reported in California, burning nearly 960,000 acres and destroying at least 1,692 buildings. And while the mountains of California offer an escape from the noise, pollution and traffic of busy cities, you must protect your new property against wildfires – namely through defensible space and fire hardening.
In California, it is required by law for all homes in areas at risk of wildfires to have an approximate 100-foot space cleared of potential fire fuel such as dried brush, shrubs and tall grass. Defensible space was not arbitrarily mandated, as it is can drastically increase your home’s chances of surviving a wildfire while improving the safety of the firefighters.
This 100-foot buffer space gets divided into two zones. The first, quaintly nicknamed “lean, clean, green,” is where homeowners must perform shrub clean-up around the property by removing dead plants, grass and weeds; detritus from roofs or rain gutters must go as well. The second zone focuses on the vertical and horizontal spacing between shrubs and trees. In vertical spacing, the plants surrounding trees and low branches get removed to eliminate a “fire ladder;” horizontal spacing prevents fire from traveling along the ground. Both of these methods also allow the trees to flourish.
Most homes get destroyed by California wildfires because of flying embers which can travel as much as a mile before landing on a roof and igniting. Even if the defensible spacing is in place, the home itself must be able to withstand direct flames and stray embers. Fire hardening is essential to the initial stages of property development – however, minor adjustments can get added should you notice that your home’s fire resistance is not adequate.
If you are building a new home, ensure that the construction materials used are composition, clay or metal materials – the roof is a particularly vulnerable spot, so give it special attention. Likewise, you can install flame-resistant WUI vents or invest in vent coverings made of metal to further protect against flying embers. Additionally, California mountain homeowners should avoid single-paned windows which are susceptible to shattering, allowing embers to enter and start fires inside. Instead, use dual-paned windows to reduce the likelihood of breakages.
Always Be Ready to Evacuate
While defensible space and fire hardening may not fully protect your home from a catastrophic wildfire, they certainly can put you at ease should your family have to evacuate your community. Remember to always have an evacuation plan, particularly during wildfire season.