What It Takes to Defend Your Home Against Wildfires: Preparedness Tips for Denver Homeowners

The vulnerabilities that led to the destruction of nearly 350 homes in Colorado Springs during last year’s Waldo Canyon fire were called out in a recent report by The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). Dr. Steve Quarles, who led groundbreaking wildfire research at the IBHS Research Center in South Carolina, says the wildfire preparedness lessons from Waldo Canyon apply to communities throughout Colorado’s wildland-urban interface, particularly in the Front Range foothills outside Denver.

One of the key findings: Fire spreading from home-to-home was a major issue, and it caused a large number of home losses. This happens when homes are spaced close together, typically 20 feet or less, says Quarles.

“What you do or don’t do affects your neighbors, and what they do or don’t do affects you,” he explains. “You’re in this together.”

Quarles says that the best approach to preventing or minimizing wildfire damage is a coupled one: making the home more fire resistant, and taking care of vegetation on the property to create a true defensible space.

“You have to address both,” he explains.

Your home

While homeowners with existing wood-shake roofs may be reluctant to invest in a replacement, Quarles says this is the no. 1 priority because wind-blown embers landing on such roofs can ignite. Other important construction or refit details include noncombustible siding (unfortunately, plastic composites are combustible), noncombustible decking and dual- or multi-pane, tempered-glass windows with screens.

Your property

Then there is the issue of defensible space.

“Make sure there’s nothing next to the house that will ignite,” says Quarles. “One good thing about Colorado Springs, he says, is that so many people use rock mulch. You must create a noncombustible zone next to your house.”

Another key point from Quarles: Never store combustibles under your deck – particularly if your home is located on a slope. A fire burning upslope acts like a fire burning across flat land with a roaring wind behind it, so a house with a combustible, overhanging deck can provide dangerous exposure for the flames, he says. Several homes in Colorado Springs were lost that way.

If your vegetation is low and brushy on the property, you should also consider building a noncombustible retaining wall that may slow a fire’s advance. Though, that won’t work if you have large trees and the fire crowns (i.e., the tops of the trees burn), says Quarles. In that case, it’s essential to regularly thin the trees and eliminate “ladder fuels,” vegetation that allows a fire to climb up into the tree canopy.

Also, never put a woodpile next to your house, and take care to regularly remove any debris around the home to maintain a defensible space.

“Your house [should be prepared to] survive because of the steps that you have taken,” Quarles advises.

Community effort

Quarles says that neighborhoods and entire communities need to understand vegetation management and defensible space. And they need to work together to create a comprehensive plan.

“Does your community have its defensible space?,” he asks. “Embers can come in and ignite wooded areas,” he says, “but fire can be stopped by vegetation management programs. Individual homeowners can help raise awareness that it takes a whole community to keep people and homes safer.”

That means addressing building requirements, establishing vegetation management and encouraging neighbors to refit their homes with fire-resistant materials for the benefit of all. Because, as the “Lessons from Waldo Canyon” points out, wildfires do more than destroy homes; they also have economic consequences: The Waldo Canyon report says the community tax base was significantly impacted by the widespread damage and destruction of homes and businesses from last year’s fires.

To get started on preparing your home against a wildfire, Quarles recommends homeowners downloading IBHS’ wildfire checklist, which can help you assess your home’s vulnerabilities and develop an action plan to address them.

Of course, your preparations should also include planning evacuation and escape routes; creating a family evacuation kit; and creating plans for any special needs household members and pets. And in the event that you’re notified by civil authorities that you need to evacuate, you’ll need to be prepared to do it quickly. Find good tips on how to do all that here.

IBHS’ “Lessons from Waldo Canyon” report was prepared by the Fire Adapted Communities Mitigation Assessment Team, which included experts in building science, forestry, social science and wildfire public education from the USDA Forest Service, IBHS, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fire Protection Association and The Nature Conservancy. The team worked closely with the Colorado Springs Fire Marshal’s Wildfire Mitigation Section and the Colorado State Forest Service.

The report and video are the result of interviews, field visits, and tours of Colorado Springs’ most affected neighborhoods conducted by the assessment team during a visit to the area in July 2012. To learn more, visit www.disastersafety.org.

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