Wildfires pose a substantial risk to structures large and small. While one can hope to avoid damage from natural disasters like fire, one of the best things to do now, is to prepare for them. A small amount of preparation now could save you a great deal of problems, should a wildfire come to your neighborhood.
Wildfires cause billions of dollars in damage to homes and property in the U.S. each year. In a recent report, the NOAA noted that, "The total 2018 wildfire costs in California (with minor costs in other Western states) approached $24 billion, a new U.S. record. In total, more than 8.7 million acres burned across the U.S. during 2018, which is well above the 10-year average (2009-2018) of 6.8 million acres."
It's important to be prepared for wildfires, as they can strike any time of year, not just during traditional summer "fire seasons." They also appear in nearly any community, rural or urban. Wildfires can also move quickly, so homeowners should take time to prepare now in case a fire appears nearby.
Before a Wildfire
Before the first flame kindles in hot, dry and windy conditions, homeowners should take a few minutes to make wildfire preparations in and around their property.
Begin with a review of the house itself, and correct any conditions that could increase destruction from a wildfire:
- Remove debris like leaves and branches from the roof and gutters.
- Likewise, clear flammable items from the exterior walls of your home, including firewood, mulch, leaves and needles.
- Remove anything that could ignite from storage areas under your deck or porch.
- Protect the interior of your home from embers that could enter through vents by installing wire mesh on the outside.
- Replace any broken or damaged shingles to protect your roof.
Review the area further away from the home around your yard and property that could prevent the spread of wildfires. This is sometimes referred to as the home's "defensible space." (Review this document from FEMA on creating a defensible space before wildfires appear." The National Fire Prevention Association has detailed tips on specific fire mitigation tasks you can take on around your home, including:
- Create fuel breaks with driveways and walkways to slow fire spread.
- Clear excess vegetation between trees and buildings to limit fire fuel.
- Get rid of any vegetation under and around outdoor propane tanks.
It's also important to prepare an emergency plan to keep your home and loved ones safe.
- Create and practice a plan for evacuating your home and reuniting with family at a designated area elsewhere. Prepare several plans, in case your family is separated during an emergency, or in case certain rendezvous points are unavailable.
- Memorize important phone numbers in case your cell phone is unavailable.
- Prepare copies of important documents you need to access, or store them online in secure cloud storage. These might include insurance information, deeds and leases, financial information, health conditions and lists of medication and any other important documents you might need access to in an emergency.
- Arrange an emergency evacuation bag with essentials in a handy location so you can grab it and evacuate quickly, if needed. There are detailed lists of "go bags" you can use from the American Red Cross, the organization Ready for Wildfire, as well as preparedness plans you can utilize at gov.
- Review your wildfire property damage coverage with your insurance broker, and add to your plan if necessary. Make sure you maintain enough coverage to replace items lost, and keep your policy updated with new large purchases or valuables. You can also take time in advance to make a video inventory of your home, and store the video online in a secure location for future reference. Don't forget to include the contents of your garage and any outbuildings that could be damaged or destroyed during a wildfire.
During a Wildfire
If you live in an area that is prone to wildfires, or even if you've never experienced one before, you should remain alert when conditions are right for fires to start and spread. Wildfires often occur typically in the summer months during periods of hot, dry and windy weather — but fires can also start from one lightning strike or a careless match or campfire. It's a good idea to have an emergency preparedness plan ready along with a bag of necessities you can grab quickly.
When a wildfire alert is in place, be ready to evacuate safely along with your family members, pets and livestock:
- Follow local guidelines on evacuation plans that could be available during a fire, but also have backup routes in mind in case fire blocks your primary exit route. Consider a nearby shelter as a rendezvous point, or a friend or family member's house outside of the fire area.
- Listen to NOAA or EAS radio or follow local news TV stations, weather apps, and emergency notifications online to know when wildfires could be nearby.
- Have animal food supplies and, if needed, carriers or trailers ready for pets and livestock.
- Fill outside pools, troughs and other large containers with water to assist firefighters if needed.
- Follow additional tips and guidelines if you have time to address more precautions at your home, such as wetting down combustible roofs, turning off propane tank valves, and shutting off the gas meter (only if advised by officials to do so). See more pre-evacuation tips from the Red Cross.
- If you are told to evacuate, leave immediately and follow all instructions to stay safe.
After a Wildfire
Wildfire emergencies can be a very stressful event for a homeowner. Like other natural disasters, damage can be widespread or focused on just one area of a town, neighborhood or property. If your home is damaged by fire, follow local emergency personnel's instructions and only return to your property when conditions are safe to do so.
- Avoid damaged or downed power lines.
- Use caution when entering structures until you are sure that they are safe.
- Watch for falling branches, roofs and other structures that could be unstable, especially just after a wildfire.
- Take photos or video to document damage and if possible take notes as you inspect your property.
- Carefully inspect and re-inspect your home's roof and extinguish any remaining embers that could reignite a fire.
- Be careful walking around your property and wear heavy boots and leather gloves to avoid being burned by hidden embers. Protect pets and livestock who might step on embers.
- Discard any food, cleaning supplies, batteries, and other products that were exposed to high temperatures, smoke, and soot. Follow local authority's instructions on proper disposal of damaged items. Never consume food or water that could potentially be contaminated.
- Contact propane suppliers, heating oil suppliers, and other fuel companies you use to have them inspect any fuel sources before turning them back on again.
- Visually check trees on your property for fire damage and prepare to clear damaged limbs or whole trees that could pose a risk of falling and causing additional harm.
- Contact your insurance agent to file a claim and discuss the rebuilding process. In some cases, you can also file for federal assistance from FEMA as well.
If you need to rebuild or repair structures after a wildfire, consider upgrading roofs, outbuildings, and other structures with fire-resistant materials. You can also build or retrofit structures with materials that make them less likely to catch on fire. Check with local resources, such as these for building wildfire resistant structures in Idaho and California.
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