Make Your Home Fire Safe
By: Steve Bonser
On June 27th, 1990, the devastating Painted Cave Fire swept through neighborhoods in Santa Barbara’s foothills and into Hope Ranch. Over 400 homes and structures were engulfed as flames powered by 40 mile an hour sundowner winds and 109 degree temperatures roared toward the Pacific Ocean. For most homeowners, the 1977 Sycamore and 1971 Romero fires were distant memories and many had not given serious consideration to the possibility of a recurrence of such a firestorm prior to that scorching June afternoon.
Another 17 years passed before the July 4th, 2007 Zaca Fire, a monstrous blaze which consumed over 240,000 acres (the state’s worst to that date). Fortunately it burned in the backcountry far from populated areas. Since then, a further 10 wildfires have wreaked havoc on Santa Barbara County, destroying well over 2,000 structures and affecting the lives of thousands of homeowners.
Clearly this periodic threat to life and property is a fact of life for Central Coast residents. Protecting your family and property from fire should always be a high priority, either when you buy your next home, build a new one, or are planning landscape and remodel projects.
While it’s impossible to make your home 100% fireproof, here are some steps you can take to improve your home fire safety:
Create a Fire-resistant Zone: Make a detailed inspection of your property, paying close attention to anything which could serve as fuel. Dry brush, wood fencing, decks, stacked firewood, and anything combustible poses a threat. To create a defensible space around your home, follow the prescribed distances for removing all fuel sources:
- Level lot with adjacent developed lots: Minimum 100 feet around the perimeter of your home
- Heavily treed surrounding areas: Minimum 150 feet around the perimeter of your home
- Hillside location: Minimum 200 feet around the perimeter of your home
California state law mandates a minimum 100 foot clearance anyway, so go the extra mile.
If you plant vegetation, choose species that are native. Plants native to California have adapted to our climate and are more fire-inhibiting than non-native species. Succulents and cacti have a high water concentration and can tolerate hot embers for a longer length of time, potentially slowing the spread of fire. Grasses, shrubs and trees that aren’t well adapted to the hot, dry conditions of our environment, light more easily, burn quickly and provide fuel for fast-traveling fires.
Firewood and storage tanks with combustibles should be at least 50 feet from structures and either in a steel shed or isolated from vegetation if outside. Flammables should only be stored in appropriate metal containers. Wood fencing, awnings, shade sails, and gazebos should be keep unattached to the house and spaced as far away as practical.
Maintain Your Landscape
When planning your landscape design, make the final result a protective barrier for your home. Space all trees and large shrubs at least 10 feet apart. Avoid tall grasses such as switchgrass, feather reed and prairie, and consider removing grassy areas entirely. You’ll save on your water bill and gardening costs. Where grass is retained, mow frequently and dispose of clippings promptly. Hardscape features such as bare soil, stone, pebble, and brick are excellent settings for succulents and cacti and require less maintenance.
Remain vigilant by routinely inspecting your property for dead or dying trees or shrubs. Prune aggressively, removing branches less than 6 feet for the ground and keep shrubs to under two feet. Do not allow branches to extend over the roof or near chimneys. Clear all gutters and eaves of leaves, pine needles and debris. During hot, dry seasons, water often and check the proper functioning of your irrigation system.
Choose Non-Flammable Materials for Structures
Among the greatest dangers during a fire is its spread by embers falling on rooftops. Carried by the wind, burning embers or firebrands can travel a mile or more, especially when sundowner or Santa Ana conditions are present. Following the disastrous Bel Air Fire in 1961 which destroyed 484 homes, “shake and shingle” wood roofing materials were banned in the tiny Los Angeles community. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Painted Cave Fire, the use of wood-shingles on new roofs was prohibited throughout Santa Barbara County.
If you haven’t had your roof replaced or aren’t sure about the nature of the materials its constructed with, speak with a contractor or roofing firm about an inspection. If you’re building a new home or renovating, ensure only non-combustible materials are used. Examine all eaves and soffit and fascia boards to determine if they’re up to code. Using treated wood, boxing in eaves, and reducing vent sizes can all reduce the possibility of fire spreading to your home.
Non-combustible screening should be installed on eave and vent openings in in chimneys to trap sparks. Keep the ground beneath decks clear of vegetation by covering soil with concrete or gravel and enclose the area with fire resistant materials. Exterior walls best able to resist fire are stucco, stone, fiber cement, brick and treated wood. Double-paned or tempered glass for windows and sliding doors should feature steel framing.
As a homeowner, much of the responsibility for preventing your home from falling victim to fire depends on you. To best prepare a first line of defense, supply your yard with multiple extra-long garden hoses to provide you with the ability to wet down your entire lot, including spraying 10 or more feet beyond your property line. If you have a pool or ground well, pumps are marketed which can draw high volumes of water for fire fighting purposes. Stand on the street facing your home at night and check to see if your address is easily seen with or without street lighting. Making your address numbers plainly visible to emergency personnel could be a matter of life or death. Draw up a fire response and evacuation plan for your family to follow should the worst occur.
After you’ve made every effort to protect your home, visit with your adjacent neighbors and ask them to see the steps you’ve taken. If the properties near you are not adequately fire-proofed, all your precautions may be compromised. Encourage everyone on your street to work with you to develop a strategy to protect the entire neighborhood. By setting a good example, you’ll hopefully inspire greater vigilance throughout your community. Be fire smart and stay fire safe!