Summer means warm sunshine and balmy breezes, and the chance to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle we’ve missed all winter. But summer also brings with it the threat of devastating, fast-moving wildfires — a threat that only worsens as the season moves along.
Wildfires can strike anywhere, with very little warning, so it’s extremely important that you take the proper steps to minimize fire risks outside of your home. And this is truly a win-win, because at the same time, you’ll also be improving your home’s curb appeal and its resale value.
Fire breaks are crucial
Fires need fuel in order to continue burning, so if you deprive the fire of what it needs to keep going, you can save your home. That’s why a fire break around your house is so important.
Before you start thinking "clear-cut," a fire break simply means creating an area of non- or low-combustible materials around the house. Those materials include hardscaping such as concrete, asphalt, paving stones and gravel; and low, moisture-retaining landscaping materials such as lawn, moist ground-cover plantings, and low shrubbery.
If you have a noncombustible roofing material such as composition shingles, metal or tile, fire officials typically recommend that the fire break extend out from the house for a distance of 30 feet in all directions. When calculating that 30-foot distance, take into consideration not just the footprint of your house, but also wooden decks and attached or closely adjacent wooden structures such as storage sheds. If your home has a wood shake roof, then extend the fire-break perimeter out to 50 feet.
Trees that are closely clumped together will support the spread of a fire much more readily, so any trees within your fire-break zone should be thinned so they’re no closer than 10 feet apart. Any dead or dying trees should be removed. With the remaining trees, remove the lower limbs so that no limb is closer than 6 feet off the ground. That helps prevent a ground fire from climbing the limbs and getting up into the trees.
Now do some cleaning
Within your fire-break zone, it’s time to do a little cleaning up. If you have any areas of dry grass, they should be cut to less than 4 inches high. All those weeds, dead grass, lawn clipping, limbs and other dead material that may have been accumulating need to be raked up and hauled away. At the very least, rake it out into a thin bed so that it doesn’t actively support a fire.
Of course, you want to clean up any other debris as well: old lumber, plastic pots from past landscaping projects, leftover pallets, fence boards and posts, empty bags and boxes, perhaps even some old cans with flammable liquids; we all accumulate things over time, but they’re not only unsightly, they’re also an extreme fire hazard. So clean them up and haul them off.
Firewood is another big problem within your fire-break zone. Most people store it where it’s convenient to the house, but that also makes it a hazard in the event of a wildfire. Firewood — and lumber for that matter — should be moved at least 20 feet away from the house during fire season.
If you’re really feeling ambitious, an even better solution is to build a separate enclosed shed for wood storage, which offers both fire protection and great seasonal protection in the winter as well.
Let’s talk roofs
Flames moving across the ground represents only one of the hazards you face during a wildfire. The other is wind-blown embers, which can lodge in trees and land on roofs. So you want to clean leaves and needles off your roof and out of your gutters, to prevent an errant spark from landing and finding enough fuel to catch and spread.
Remove dead branches that overhang any portion of your roof. To prevent the possibility of catching a tree on fire with your own fireplace, also trim overhanging tree branches — living or dead — back a minimum of 10 feet away from the chimney in all directions.
If you’re not comfortable with any of this type of limbing, or with being on the roof to clean off all the debris, hire a licensed tree-trimming company to handle it for you.
Finally, when you’re ready to reroof, go with a material that’s fire-resistant. You’ll have some additional piece of mind, and you may even qualify for a break on your homeowners insurance.