As we turned our calendars over to August this week, wildfires were on the top of our minds.
As many people in the Northwest know, it’s officially “wildfire season,” and almost a million homes in the western United States are considered “at risk” for wildfires. According to the 2015 Wildfire Risk Report from CoreLogic, this is especially true in California, Texas and Colorado, where many homes are considered to be at a “very high risk.”
But, wildfires are not just a concern for western states.
They’re a huge concern even in the damp climate of the Northeast. In fact, New York State averages 279 fires every year, burning an average of 2,961 acres per year. One such wildfire on the Long Island Central Pine Barrens in 1992 destroyed almost a thousand acres, three homes, and even one fire engine.
Needless to say, if you have properties near forests or grasslands, they’re at risk. What might be surprising is that urban homes are at risk, too. According to information from CoreLogic, 322 of the 347 homes destroyed in the 2012 Waldo Canyon, Colorado fire were classified as “urban” (aka low risk) homes.
Investigations showed that these homes, while not typically at risk, succumbed to fires started by embers brought over from the wind from high-risk areas.
So what can you do?
There are some things you can do to protect your properties well before the threat arrives.
Focus on the roof, first.
- Clean debris off roof and out of gutters. Dried leaves and other debris that accumulates in rain gutters and other crevices is ready fuel for windblown embers.
- Use Class A Roof Covering. Class A products provide the highest level of fire-prevention available. If you aren’t sure whether your roofs are already constructed with Class A material, schedule an inspection. If you are in a high-risk area, work with your tenants, HOAs or other stakeholders to create a budget to re-roof with Class A material.
- Understand the fire resistance characteristics of different roof types. Clay and slate roofing provides the most fire resistance. Concrete shingles and tile are also fire resistant, but they can be expensive. Asphalt shingles must be fiberglass reinforced to be Class A, and fiber cement/synthetic shingles must have an underlayment to qualify as Class A. Membrane roofs (most flat-top roofs), and wood shingles are combustible.
- Consider roof-mounted fire sprinkler systems. Some states qualify for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Remove wooden fences and decks
Wooden fences and decks can catch fire, like any wood structure. When they do, they can create flying embers that can spread the fire. If you do have wooden fences, spray-treat them with fire-resistant sprays, and/or budget out investing in replacement structures that are fire-resistant.
Enforce outdoor storage rules
Don’t allow for storage of potentially combustible materials near the property, particularly under porches or behind garages. Also be aware of the vegetation growth underneath the porch.
Screen vents and eaves
Consider installing 1/8-inch screen meshes, which may keep flying embers out of vents and other vulnerable areas. Remember to clean them regularly, as they can collect leaves and debris just like the rain gutters.
One of the first principles of landscaping is to create ‘defensible space’ for at least 100 feet around the building. Be sure to remove any shrubs growing under trees, cut out thin trees, and regularly remove dead vegetation.
Create firebreaks, using gravel walkways, sidewalks and driveways or roads through the property and around the perimeter.
As for the grass and plants: short grass is less fuel, so it helps to keep it short. And, if you can, collect all clippings and haul them away.
Additionally, you can find lists of fire-resistant plants specific to your state here.
Use noncombustible siding
Again, you’ll want Class A or B siding materials, such as three-coat stucco or fiber cement. Avoid wood or vinyl, unless it can be treated with fire-retardants.
Also maintain a 6-inch clearance between the ground and the siding.
Expand defensible space upwind and downhill
Fire moves faster uphill than downhill, and wind can push flaming embers as far as a mile away. Establish “defensible space” that is clear of vegetation and debris for at least 100 feet around the property. But you may want to at least double that upwind and downhill.
Check your windows
The best windows are tempered dual-pane glass. Replace as many untempered single pane windows as you can, as these are prone to shattering, which allows flaming embers to enter the structure.
Not sure if you already have tempered windows? Look for an etching in the corners that marks them as tempered. Or, look at them through polarized sunglasses—if they are tempered, you will see dark lines or spots.
If you have to evacuate the building, have residents close all windows and doors.
Speak with your property insurance agent
Many companies have special fire risk assessment and mitigation programs for homes that are at risk. Some will even send crews to your property to assist with last minute fireproofing if your area is threatened by a wildfire, if the situation permits.
Know the prevailing winds.
If you know the direction of the wind most of the time, you can place more emphasis on protective measures on the upwind side of the property.
Evaluate your communication procedures
- Enable quick updates for residents. They shouldn’t have to call and tie up your staff on the phone. Provide quick updates via text, email, or your website should your property come under imminent threat of an encroaching wildfire.
- Hold safety drills. Include both staff and residents, and provide instructions for any pets or children.
- Encourage renters insurance coverage. Generally, if a multifamily apartment or townhouse or other residential property is destroyed by fire, the landlord is covered by their insurance, but renters are not—unless they have renters insurance. If you do not already require renters insurance, explain that a fire could cost them everything they own is a good way to encourage them to purchase it for themselves.