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The number of residential fires in the United States has steadily decreased over the past six decades thanks to advancements in detection and suppression. Still, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) reports that hundreds of thousands of house fires are reported every year leading to thousands of fire-related deaths and injuries. Protecting your family and your home from fires is an often overlooked, but critical need.
Home fire protection most commonly includes the purchase and use of smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. These offer you the capability to extinguish a small fire, if you catch it in time, or to be warned of a bigger fire if you don’t. Those are crucial safety devices for the times a fire occurs inside your home. But what if the threat comes from outside your home?
In 2017, the United States was bombarded by wildfires. It was a remarkable season in many ways and all of them tragic. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) almost 10-million acres burned in 66,131 separate wildfires. In California alone, 9,000 wildfires ravaged 1.2-million acres of land, destroying over 10,000 structures.
The West Coast was devastated by wildfires, but if you live in or near a wooded area, you’re at risk as well. Even those in residential areas aren’t immune. Just last year, there are several examples of conflagration. These include the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas, where, due to a large apartment building fire and high springtime winds, a single fire reached out and damaged over 30 residences in a nearby neighborhood.
Protecting your home, loved ones, and belongings takes on a whole new meaning when infernos, burning at nearly 1,500 degrees F, rage all around. Fire literally falls from the sky or can approach like a tidal wave, rising above your rooftop. In most cases this is a battle you can’t win. Fire is a formidable enemy under typical residential circumstances, but when you factor in the sheer volume of a wildfire, the thought of defending your home seems hopeless.
There are situations, though, where steps can be taken to intervene when your home is threatened by a wildfire. One way is with the installation of a residential sprinkler system. Unless it was installed in the construction phase, though, this can be very costly. There are some DIY methods that can save money, but these don’t often meet the aesthetic standards of most families.
One could argue the cost versus benefit of this, but for the sake of conversation, let’s take a home sprinkler system off the table and focus on protecting your home from the outside. So what options does that leave you with? According to experts, there are a few primary ways that you can, at the very least, hinder the process of an imminent wildfire.
Above: No one looks forward to cleaning rain gutters, but dry leaves and debris are fuel that could easily ignite if they are allowed to build up. Clean your rain gutters regularly.
One of the least expensive and best ways to protect your home from a wildfire is by creating a defensible space. Simply put, a defensible space is the area around your home between the structure itself and vegetation and combustibles. Vegetation is the fuel for a wildfire, and by creating a space between your home and the fuel, you have a natural fire break that’ll slow the progression of the fire. The goal is to create enough space around your home as practically possible. Some states suggest defensible space zone models at 30- and 100-foot radiuses around your home. Most suggest that a minimum of 30 feet between structures and vegetation is considered “industry standard.”
The first thing to identify is the slope of your property. Fire likes to burn uphill, mostly due to the preheating of the ground fuel and the up-slope draft. The greater the slope away from your house, the greater defensible space you’ll want in that direction. If the grade is over 30 percent, you’ll want at least 100 feet of defensible space.
The next step is to inspect nearby shrubbery and trees. Experts aren’t saying that you can’t have decorative landscaping around your house — just choose carefully what you put there. All plants will burn given the right conditions. Choose plants that shed a minimal amount of leaves or other waste. Trees should be low in resin and sap with no rough bark. If you’re uncomfortable identifying the right plants and trees, check with a local landscaping professional.
It’s also a good idea to conduct regular maintenance by clearing the area around your home of yard waste. Some property owners utilize lawn sprinklers to saturate the ground surrounding their house prior to evacuation. They turn them on as far in advance of the fire as they can, and then leave them running and safely evacuate.
Trees can create what are known as “ladder fuels,” upwardly growing vegetation that allows fire to climb vertically. To reduce your risk of nearby trees becoming ladder fuels, trim branches to where the lowest branches are at least 6 feet off the ground. Tree limbs should be pruned away from your house, particularly the rooftop and chimney. Obviously the closer the tree branches are to your home, the greater the chance for a fire to reach out or jump to your house.
Above: Attic vents are often the flashpoint for ignition as embers make their way through openings. Make sure to install fireproof mesh screens to reduce the chances of a surrounding fire being able to work its way into your home.
Protect your attic by minding vent openings and eaves. These provide the perfect gaps for embers to enter the void spaces in your home where small fires start and become big fires before you even know it. Ensuring they’re properly screened could be the safeguard you need to keep embers from clandestinely reaching your home’s interior. While you’re on the roof checking the screens on your chimney, vents, and eaves, be sure to clean out your gutters. An accumulation of dead leaves around the roof perimeter is asking for trouble.
Install outdoor non-combustible shutters. Heat can break windows and quickly ignite the curtains hanging just inside of the glass. Even before the glass breaks, enough heat can be transferred to ignite fabric inside the home. Installing non-combustible shutters that can be closed during an emergency provides a specified fire rating (depending on manufacturer) that can hinder fire spread inside your home.
Creating a defensible space is a relatively easy way to keep fires away from your home as well as providing firefighters the space they need to get to all sides of your house and quickly extinguish a fire. A little bit of knowhow combined with a healthy dose of common sense will provide you the peace of mind of knowing that you have taken proactive steps to put a potentially life-saving barrier between you and a fire.
The use of foam in firefighting applications has been evolving since the early 1900s. It really wasn’t until the mid 1980s that foam became readily used in wildland firefighting, and then was brought inside for interior suppression operations. Foam provides several advantages for fighting fires. It cools the area and produces a blanket that deprives oxygen, which extinguishes the fire. Foam also reduces the surface tension of water that, simply put, makes water wetter allowing it to penetrate further into the fuel, improving saturation.
Above: Commercially available foams have a long shelf life, and there are many applicators available that can be used to mitigate the onset of a fire.
Foam can also be used for fire prevention. In recent years, commercially available foams have been utilized by homeowners as a preemptive action against wildfires. There are now a variety of brands that offer residential foams that can be applied to the exterior of structures to blanket them, keeping them cool and reducing the chance for ignition.
Foam can be purchased in a variety of quantities from large 275-gallon totes to small 5-gallon buckets and can be applied in an assortment of ways. There are simple approaches that use a standard garden hose. More complex methods are also available that involve a gas-powered pump, an eductor (which is a device that uses the venturi effect to draw foam up into a hose stream), a hose (often a 1.5-inch fire hose), and a nozzle.
For portability reasons, some people have opted to purchase a hand pump backpack-style unit due to its mobility and rapid application benefits. This method makes it difficult, if not impossible, to cover a large area quickly, but is more cost effective than some of the other, more involved methods. If your goal is to cover and protect a structure, this may not be the best option for you, but is a good tool for putting out spot fires or protecting a small area that may be difficult to reach.
Once applied, foams absorbs into the material and can remain active between eight and 16 hours. The benefit of using foam is that most commercially available foam is approved by the EPA and is biodegradable. As a general rule, foam doesn’t stain, damage, or kill vegetation. There’s little or no clean up after use.
There are a variety of fire-retardant gels also available and, while they’re safe to use in the same fire suppression and prevention methods as foam, gel can be messy and expensive to cleanup. The shelf life alone often deters many homeowners. Gel shelf life is typically three to five years. By comparison, foam shelf life is often over 20 years. The effectiveness of gels can be less than foam and, therefore, aren’t often favored.
Fire-retardant additives can be purchased for exterior paint. Interior flame-retardant paint, albeit costly, can also be purchased and is used in some government buildings, such as the Pentagon and some U.S. embassies.
Above: If you have a pool, spa, or nearby pond, a pump, such as this model from JJS Fire Supply, can be used to saturate your home and stave off a fire until help arrives.
Another way to saturate the exterior of your home as a fire-prevention tactic or to put out exterior fires is the use of swimming pool water. Some companies offer an attachment that comes directly off of your swimming pool pump that mirrors the setup of a fire truck: a water supply, a pump, and a fire hose. You can DIY a system or, for around $600, you can purchase a kit that includes the parts needed for attachment to the pool pump, 100 feet of fire of fire hose, nozzle, and a hose reel to store it. Keep in mind that many pumps are reliant on electricity being available to run, but until the electricity is no longer available, it’s an effective and safe tactic. Gas-powered pumps are also available.
If you have a swimming pool, pond, or Jacuzzi, another system that can be used is a floating gas-powered pump system. They work just as any water pump would and come with the same fire hose and nozzle, but offer the advantage of floating on the surface of water. These pumps can typically flow up to 265 gallons per minute, which is a very sufficient flow rate for wetting down your house and property.
There are also companies that make plastic and steel water tanks that can be installed if your property will support something of that size. Capacity typically ranges from 2,000 to 5,500 gallons. Free-standing, portable water tanks can also be set up as a water source with enough notice. They operate much like a kiddie pool and can be inflated and filled with water to combat an approaching blaze.
Protecting your home from fire, particularly if you live in a high-risk area, should go beyond the standard smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. Anyone who has been affected by a wildfire will tell you that they’re swift, voracious, and devastating. Clear the area around your home creating a defensible space and then utilize your available budget and creativity to ensure you can take the needed steps to protect your home, property, and most importantly, your loved ones.
Scott Finazzo has over 20 years of experience as a firefighter. He’s a member of his department’s technical rescue team and has served as an instructor since 2000. Scott has written five books, including the national bestselling The Prepper’s Workbook and The Neighborhood Emergency Response Handbook, as well as his narrative of a kayak journey through the Virgin Islands called Why Do All the Locals Think We’re Crazy? Follow Scott at www.scottfinazzo.com.