How to prepare your home for the next Texas wildfire

September 30, 2020

Learn what steps you can take to prepare your home for the next Texas wildfire

Silhouette of a house with a wildfire burning behind it

There are few things more frightening than a wildfire; they indiscriminately tear across landscapes, consuming everything in their paths. Although Texas has been relatively free from wildfires in recent years, if the right conditions arise, a simple spark could spell disaster. But while a wildfire may seem like an unstoppable force of nature, there are some steps you can take to potentially mitigate damage to your home. There's no time like the present to begin, so today, we'll discuss how to prepare your home for the next Texas wildfire.

Wildfires in Texas

In 2010, a severe drought began to develop in Texas - one of the worst on record. These weather conditions, combined with a bumper crop of grass growth across the state, made the Lone Star State ripe for wildfires.

Then, in 2011, not one, but 31,453 fires began burning statewide and by the end, almost 4,000,000 acres of land and 2,947 homes had burned creating plumes of smoke visible from space

Since then, Texas hasn't experienced droughts of that magnitude, nor have there been wildfires on that scale. But as fires sprout up all across the west coast, we're reminded that it isn't a question of if, but when.

What are some of the best ways to prepare your home for a wildfire?

The 2011 Texas wildfires were some of the worst in Texas history, but it doesn't take a catastrophic event to pose a risk to your home and property. While we can't control droughts, there are certain steps you can take to prepare your home in the event that a wildfire heads your way. 

Preparing your home before a wildfire begins

Develop an emergency plan. Similar to developing an emergency plan for a hurricane, it's important to have a plan in place for wildfires. Sit down with your family and discuss what needs to be done, and who is responsible for doing it.

When evacuation orders are issued, it's important to make sure that your vehicle is prepared to leave ahead of time. This means keeping it fueled and ensuring that it is road-ready. Consider asking several family members or friends if you can potentially use their home as a refuge (assuming it is out of harm's way).

Finally, it's always a good idea to have a disaster kit ready ahead of time. This might include essentials, such as a first aid kit, a flashlight with batteries, water, a small amount of cash, a map, backup medication, and so on.

Remove flammable mulch and vegetation from your home. If you have flammable mulch or plants within 5 feet of your home, it's a good idea to consider moving them out of that range. Of course, this can be a very involved process, but consider it the next time you are planning to have landscaping work done.

Keep gutters clean. Whilekeeping the gutters on your roof clean is an essential step in preparing your home for a hurricane or heavy rains, it's also an important step to take when preparing your home for wildfires. When leaves and twigs collect in the gutter and dry out, they become the perfect kindling for wayward embers that could float and land on your roof. 

Keep trees trimmed. Keeping the trees in your yard trimmed is also an important step in mitigating damage from both hurricanes and wildfires. You should always try and keep branches and boughs at least 10 feet away from your roof to prevent flames from using them as a bridge to your house. 

It's also a good idea to keep branches trimmed at least 10 feet off the ground. If the grass below a tree is on fire, it will often use low-hanging limbs as a sort of ladder fuel. Of course, if the fire is large and hot enough, your tree will likely catch fire anyway, but the trunks of many trees are far more fire resistant than their smaller limbs. 

Install fire resistant materials on your home. If you have the opportunity to install fire resistant materials on the exterior of your home, this can go a long way to protecting it in the event of a wildfire. While altering the siding of your house may not be possible, there are a number of different types of roof shingles that withstand embers and flames better than others.

Furthermore, if you're planning on building a deck, consider using materials that aren't as susceptible to fire. Alternatively, there are a number of fire-resistant chemical treatments you can apply to a wooden deck if you have already built one. 

Inspect smoke alarms. Inspecting and installing smoke detectors and alarms is an essential part of being a homeowner even if the threat of a wildfire isn't imminent. It is recommended that you test your smoke alarms once a month and replace the batteries once or twice a year.

Keep flammable objects away from your house. While it may be tempting to stack firewood close to your home for heat in the winter, this can be quite dangerous in the event of a wildfire. Furthermore, if you have a compost heap, or any other large collection of similar flammable materials, it's important to keep them at least 30 feet away from the house if possible.

Finally, if at all possible, keep spare fuel cans, such as those used for lawn mowers, oil cans, and propane tanks 30 feet away from your home, too.  

Rake leaves, clear dead limbs. Regular yard maintenance isn't just a way to keep your home looking sharp - it can be an important way to protect your home from wildfires! Regularly rake fallen leaves, collect dead limbs, and dispose of them at least 30 feet away from your house. It is especially important to clear the areas beneath trees, as the dried twigs and leaves can add fuel to a fire and possibly catch your trees on fire. 

Keep grills and BBQs away from the house. While you should always do your outdoor cooking a safe distance away from your house and avoid cooking beneath deck covers and awnings, it's a good idea to store charcoal and propane tanks away from your house, too.  Also, when you are cooking outdoors, remember to dispose of ashes in a metal bucket to avoid inadvertently starting a fire of your own.

Keep lawns healthy. An overgrown lawn that is full of tall, dry grass is the perfect place for a wildfire to spread. That's why it's important to keep your grass well-hydrated and trimmed.

Install mesh screens. One of the most dangerous aspects to a wildfire are the embers that it sends floating through the air. These hot flecks of ash and wood can and often do land in dry patches of grass, starting a new fire that begins to spread. But they can also find their way into vents on your house, and possibly in the space beneath your house or your deck. 

To prevent this from happening, it is recommended that you install 1/8 inch metal mesh screens over the vents that lead into your house, and possibly around any gaps below your home or deck.

Steps you can take once a wildfire has started

While there are plenty of things you can do beforehand to protect your house, if a wildfire has started and is on its way, there are steps you can take to make sure that your home is in the best possible position to withstand it. However, if the threat of a wildfire is looming, or if the fire is close, make sure to listen to emergency broadcasts for evacuation orders. If you are asked to evacuate, do not hesitate to do so.

Close window shutters, vents, and other openings. By closing all openings to your house, you can somewhat reduce that amount of radiant heat from the flames outside and possibly prevent wayward embers from traveling inside. Also make sure to close any vents that lead to the outside, such as dryer vents, doors, and pet doors. 

Remove flammable drapes and curtains. If you have flammable drapes, blinds, or curtains, remove them from your windows if possible. Even though they are inside your house, being close to the wall and windows means that they could possible ignite from the radiant heat alone. 

Remove flammable furniture away from windows and walls. Again, even though your furniture is inside and behind the wall, the radiant heat from an intense blaze can transfer through your wall, and potentially get hot enough to catch flammable materials on fire. 

Turn off gas. If you have a gas line for your water heater or your stove, it's important to shut it off in the event of a wildfire. As you can imagine, the natural gas can easily leak, feeding the fire.

Turn off your AC. Flames and heat aren't the only things that have the potential to damage your home during a wildfire - the smoke can be destructive, too. Because your AC pulls air from the outside into your home, it's important to turn it off during a wildfire. If you have a smart thermostat or any type of thermostat the runs a scheduled program, make sure to turn that off to prevent your AC from sucking smoke into your home. 

Turn on lights. When a wildfire rages through an area, the smoke can obscure everything, making your home difficult to find. Keeping your porch and other outside lights on can help make your house easier to spot for firefighters. Additionally, if you've removed your flammable window curtains and the light form inside can shine through, having interior lights on can assist firefighters, too. 

Close all doors in your house. Before you leave, make sure to close all of the doors to the various rooms in your house in addition to the exterior doors. This can prevent drafts, and in general has the ability to slow the spread of a fire should it make its way into your home. It may not sound like much, but every little bit of extra time helps.

Set up sprinklers. The issue of whether or not to set up sprinklers has many people divided. On one hand, dousing your lawn, vegetation, and the exterior of your home has been shown at times to slow the spread of flames, especially by preventing embers from having an effect. 

However, on the other hand, if you live in a neighborhood where dozens of people have decided to do the same, the local water pressure can be significantly impacted, making it difficult for firefighters to get water to the places it's needed. 

Either way, you should avoid climbing on your roof to set up sprinklers, or waiting around to activate the sprinklers when the fire draws near. More often than not, by the time fire is close enough to warrant turning on the sprinklers, you should probably already have evacuated. Remember, you should always put the safety of you and your family first, and never risk endangering yourself to save your house.

When in doubt, get out

It is never easy to leave your home behind knowing that a wildfire is headed towards it. In such a scenario, you may be tempted to stay behind despite evacuation orders and do your best to prevent your house from catching fire. However, this can often put you in a situation where the possibility of evacuation is made more difficult, or even impossible.

Roads can become congested with traffic, and may even be blocked entirely by abandoned vehicles or fallen refuse. Noxious smoke from the fire can also drift across escape routes, reducing visibility to dangerous levels. That's why it is essential to listen for evacuation orders, and if they are issued, gather your family and retreat to safety. 

Finally, as part of your wildfire preparation, make sure that you have adequate homeowners or property insurance. Speak to your local insurance agent about your coverage limits and covered losses to ensure that you are protected from wildfire damage should the worst happen.  

A firefighter standing in the grass in front of a Texas wildfire

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Read more: There's a lot to learn about home and property insurance in Texas. Read our blog to learn everything you need to know!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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