Every year, vast amounts of land and dozens, if not hundreds, of home are destroyed by brush fires and wildfires. These fires can break out at any time and for many causes. In most cases, these fires are started by lightning, the uncontrolled burning of debris, or arson. Where homes are being built today in areas of previous wildland, the risks grow even greater. With so much susceptible space, it places a serious drain on state and federal resources, not to mention the firefighters that need to respond to related emergencies.
In the United States alone, there are an estimated 100,000 or more wildfires every year. With 90% of those fires caused by people, only 10% are caused by nature (lightning). To start a brush fire, you need oxygen, heat, and fuel. There needs to be at least 16% oxygen in the air for the fire to start, which is relatively easy since our atmosphere contains 21%. Fuel can come from any living or dead material that will burn. The best sources of fuel are dead plants, pine needles, dry leaves, and grass, as these natural substances burn more readily than green plants which still contain moisture. The heat is then often supplied by a lightning strike, but also through careless activities from humans.
The state of Florida rates number five on the list of acres burned since 2002, with over 34,734 acres lost to wildfire. As a comparison, the state of California experienced 87,742 acres burnt, and Hawaii only 29.
Brush fire risk is on the rise
Though the media makes it very easy for us to gain access to news and important information, it seems that in recent years, our country has experienced more and more wildfires. Climate change has largely heightened the risk of brush fires due to drier conditions and warmer temperatures that lengthen the brush fire season. This means an increase in the chances of a fire starting or spreading. These warmer and drier conditions also can lead to the spread of certain insects that can weaken or kill trees. And this means a build-up of fuels in the forest.
Researchers have observed that there has been a significant increase in the trend of large fires as well as the total area burned each year in our country.
- Human-caused climate change has increased wildfire activity across forested land, particularly in the western portion of the country
- Half of the increase in western wildfires is believed to be due to climate change
- Earlier snowmelt, higher temperatures, drier conditions, increased availability of fuel, and longer warm seasons all add to an increased risk of wildfire
- Drier fuels caused by a warmer globe make it easier for fires to start and spread
- Climate change has lengthened the window of time each year conducive to forest fires.
- Warmer winters have led to increased outbreaks of insects that can cause the death of trees, leaving dried trees for easy consumption by raging fires
How brush fires are stopped
The best way to stop a brush fire or wild fire is by following the triangle method. Examples of the traditional triangle method include:
- Using water and fire retardants to extinguish existing fires
- Teams comprised of specialized firefighters called hotshots clear vegetation and work to contain the fire, starving it from access to fuel
- Backfires or controlled burning used to remove areas with a heavy presence of undergrowth, brush, and forest debris to starve an area of fuel
How to protect your home from a brush fire
Though no home or space will ever be completely foolproof from fire, there are things you can do to protect your home in the event you are in the path of a fire. These strategies should only be taken before an evacuation notice, as if an evacuation notice has been ordered, it is best to follow the guidance of local authorities and fire personnel.
The first component of a strategy to protect your home from a brush fire involves creating a defensible space. This means that you will need to create a zone or perimeter around your home that will slow the fire, and ideally will direct it around or away from your home. To be effective in this strategy, you need to envision your yard, garden, and any other areas around your home as a source of fuel. This might include your deck, bonfire spaces, piles of wood, landscaping, old trees, etc.
When creating this defensible area, follow the below suggestions within 30 feet of your house. If you live in an area with a lot of trees, expand this to 50 feet. And, if your home is built into a hillside, expand this area to 100 feet.
- Plant more vegetation
- Space and plant trees ten or more feet apart
- Pull out dead trees and shrubs
- Prune away any dead limbs from trees or shrubs
- Make sure branches are more than six feet from the ground
- For shrubs under trees, make sure that they are no more than 18 inches in height
- Keep your lawn mowed and make sure that the cuttings from the mowing are properly disposed of, away from your home
- Keep your irrigation system well maintained and functional
- Regularly clear your cutters and eaves to ensure adequate water flow
- Install mesh screening on vents to reduce embers that could pass through
- Move any storage tanks or firewood a minimum of 50 feet from your home and ensure that there is 10 feet of clear space around each one
- Make sure that wooden fencing does not directly connect to your house, garage, or outbuildings
- Rake and properly dispose of pine needles
The National Fire Protection Association has several resources available for you to download for more information on how to prepare your home for a brush fire.
Retrofit your home with non-flammable materials
Though this is the easiest to do at the time of construction, it is possible to use non-flammable materials for some of the construction of your home. This can be especially effective if you live in an area that is more prone to brush fires than others. If a brush fire gets close to your home, these materials can provide another layer of protection, especially when used in combination with the incorporation of a defensible area such as that suggested above.
There are many contractors throughout southern Florida that are skilled in construction using non-flammable materials.
- Use non-combustible roofing materials only
- Box in fascia, eaves, soffits, and subfloors with fire-resistant materials such as treated wood to reduce the vent sizes (which will help reduce the flow of oxygen during a brush fire)
- Apply non-combustible one-quarter-inch screening to all eave and vent openings
- Install spark arresters in chimneys
- Enclose underneath decks and wooden patios with fire-resistant materials
- Cover your exterior walls with fire-resistant materials such as stone, brick, or stucco
- Install double-paned or tempered glass on all exterior windows
- Install noncombustible street signs
- Make sure address is visible from the street so that fire personnel can easily locate your home in the event of an emergency
Keeping your family safe in case of a brush fire
Though it is natural to want to keep your home safe in the event of an approaching brush fire, your family’s safety must take priority. If you have not taken the time to create a fire safety and communication plan and live in an area that is highly subject to brush fires, now is the time to do so.
To start your plan, make yourself familiar with the disaster preparedness plans and guidelines within your community. In many cases, example plans or fire safety planning kits will be available at local community centers, civic centers, or fire stations. If these are not available in your community, you can easily download examples from the internet which can be used as a starting point for your family plan.
Using a map, identify escape routes from your home and your neighborhood that will take you to an area less subject to brush fires. Designate an emergency meeting place for your family to reunite in the event of an evacuation and you become separated. Make sure that all critical family member phone numbers are documented on paper (and carried in purses or wallets) or saved into the memory of your mobile device.
As an additional precaution, create a ready-to-go emergency kit that has first aid supplies, a portable National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) radio, a set of basic tools including hammer, screwdrivers, and pliers), a flashlight, spare flashlight batteries (and batteries for any other electrical devices as needed), medications, spare clothing, prescription medications, car and house keys, credit cards and cash, copies of important papers including insurance policies, etc. Though you likely have all of these items in your home, it is best to have them all together in the event you need to take action quickly.
Keep communication lines open
If you are in the path of an approaching brush fire, be sure that you keep the communication lines open between you and the local authorities. Monitor the news and make sure that critical information can reach you in the event of an evacuation. When the evacuation order is given, leave immediately so that you do not get caught in fire, smoke, or congestion from traffic. If possible, and if you have taken steps to prepare your home, consider evacuating before the official order is given. This will provide you a greater chance of avoiding traffic congestion. Remember that in the event of an intense brush fire, the authorities will not be in a position to go door to door to check on you and issue individual orders.
Local authorities and fire officials will make the determination on which areas should be evacuated. They will also determine and advise as to the best escape routes based on the location of the fire, how it is behaving, and other climatic factors. You may hear the terms voluntary and mandatory, or precautionary and immediate threat. These terms are leveraged to provide you with specific guidance about the significance of the coming danger. Be sure that you follow orders as given, turn your gas off, and do not hesitate.
Avoid returning to your home until you receive notification that it is safe. The authorities don’t want to keep you away any longer than necessary, so trust that as soon as there is information to share, that it will be shared. When you do return home, be on the lookout for downed power lines. Be sure to check your propane tanks, regulators, and lines before you turn your gas back on. Finally, be sure to check your residence and the area around your home for any hidden embers or smoldering fires.
Was your home in the path of brush fires? Did you lose property as a result of brush fires in your area? Contact Bulldog Adjusters today to find out how we can help you get back on your feet. We’re one of the fastest-growing public adjusting firms in the United States and we will fight to get you the insurance settlement that you deserve.