Wildfire preparedness: Home hardening and creating defensible spaces

July 2, 2021

Learn how to prepare for wildfires by hardening your home and creating defensible spaces

A man trimming a tree to harden his home and create a defensible space from wildfires

After the rainy months of spring and early summer, the landscape is absolutely bursting with growing green vegetation. In such a lush setting, it's hard to imagine how anything could burn, or how a wildfire could spark. Yet wildfires can and do happen in Texas, and there is often little time to act once they have sparked. That's why it's important to take steps ahead of time to harden your home and create defensible spaces around it.

But how exactly do you harden your home against wildfires? What does it mean to create defensible spaces around your property? Today, we'll explain these concepts and give you actionable steps you can take to protect your home from a future wildfire - read on! 

Home hardening and defensible spaces: A two-pronged defense

When it comes to preparing for the threat of wildfires to your home, it's important to understand exactly how a wildfire spreads. Of course, the flames themselves can spread through direct contact as they gradually, and sometimes quickly, move through combustible materials.

But it is not always necessary for the flames to come into direct contact with your home or property for the fire to spread and damage it. Embers from the flames can cause the fire to leap forward and can even move across large distances if the wind is just right. 

Closer to the flames themselves, radiant heat is yet another way that a wildfire can spread without making direct contact. Radiant heat refers to the heat energy given off by the flames. In some situations, radiant heat alone can raise the temperature of nearby materials to the point of combustion. If a fire outside your home is hot enough, it can cause combustible materials inside your home, like carpet and curtains, to burn without coming in contact with the fire directly. 

Fortunately, the practices of home hardening and creating defensible spaces take this into consideration, and offer a variety of methods you can use to protect your home from a wildfire. 

Home hardening

Home hardening refers to improvements you can make to your home to make it more resistant to wildfires. Although some of the items listed here are considerations that might be easier to implement during construction, some of them can be retroactively installed to an otherwise already complete house.

Fire-resistant materials. As you will see in the following examples, "fire-resistant" or "ignition resistant" materials are important for home hardening. Although these terms may have specific definitions or requirements outlined by state building codes, they generally refer to materials that can withstand prolonged exposure to heat sources. These might also be referred to as "non-combustible" materials, like metal and clay, or fire-retardant-treated lumber and wood.

Of course, fire-resistant does not mean fire-proof, so the ratings assigned to building materials usually refer to how long a given material can withstand a certain amount of heat. When looking at materials to harden your home, it is important to make sure that you speak with a professional to understand what level of protection or fire resistance a given material will provide.

Roof. Out of all the vulnerable portions of your house, your roof usually covers the greatest area, and is therefore more vulnerable to wayward embers. A standard roof might be made from all sorts of different materials, many of which offer little to no protection from embers or fire in general.

In order to give your roof the best defense against wildfires, consider replacing your shingles with non-flammable or flame resistant materials, such as metal sheeting or clay tiles. If you have eaves or awnings surrounding your home, they could also benefit from being built from the same materials when possible. 

Vents and chimney. Most homes have a number of vents and openings, either on the roof or somewhere on the exterior walls. This might be something obvious, like a chimney flue, but might also include less apparent openings, such as plumbing vents, attic vents, exhaust vents, or even dryer vents. Any and all of these openings can be a dangerous point of entry into your home for embers that ride air currents during a wildfire.

To prevent said embers from finding their way inside, place metal corrosion resistant grates over all of your vents and your chimney. While you can find fiberglass or plastic covers to prevent birds and insects from building nests inside, these do very little to stop embers. Lastly, make sure they are at least a 1/8-inch mesh, or even 1/16-inch, as larger sizes, such as 1/4-inch, will not be adequate. 

Decks. Apart from your roof, decks can be a large, often combustible, surface at risk of catching fire during a wildfire. If you have a deck, there are a number of stains and sealants that have some measure of fire resistance that you can apply. If you're building a deck, consider using wood that has been treated with fire resistant chemicals, or possibly even constructing the deck from a wood-PVC composite material. Again, these options won't make your deck fire-proof, but will go a long way to preventing it from catching fire should embers come to land upon it. 

Gutters. Although gutters are great for diverting water from the roof, they often collect leaves, twigs, dirt, and other unwanted refuse that can be a dangerous bed of flammable materials. Cleaning these out frequently is helpful, but you can make it a lot easier on yourself by installing flame-resistant covers. These covers prevent most of this material from gathering, which is great for those of us who may not always remember to clean our gutters regularly. 

Windows. Radiant heat can frequently break single-pane windows, allowing embers to enter freely. Double-pane windows with tempered glass not only make breakage less likely, they can reduce the amount of radiant heat that transfers through them, which can easily cause things like drapes and window shades to catch fire. Proper screens can also help prevent radiant heat transfer, and can stop embers if the glass does break. 

Lastly, it may be helpful to limit the number and size of windows facing larger clumps of shrubs, trees, and other vegetation. Should that vegetation catch fire, the fewer windows that would subsequently be subjected to the heat from that fire the better. Of course, there is little you can do if your home has already been built, but if you're adding shrubs or trees as part of a landscaping project, it's worth keeping in mind. 

Walls and siding. Every point in the construction of a wall can have some home hardening done to protect them from fires. Not only can walls be constructed of flame resistant materials, the exterior siding can be made to protect your home. Materials like bricks, stucco, and stone are much more resistant to flames than wood or vinyl panels. 

Garage. Many garage doors are already made from non-combustible materials, like sheet metal, but that is not always the case. If you do have a garage door made out of something combustible, like wood, consider treating it with a flame resistant stain if replacing it is out of the question. It's also important to make sure that there are no major gaps around the edges of your garage door. By installing weather stripping around the edges, you can ensure that embers don't float inside. 

If possible, try to store combustible liquids, like gasoline and engine oil, in a building that isn't attached to your home. If you don't have an alternative place to store such liquids, do your best to keep flammable liquids stored apart from other combustible materials in your garage, like paper recycling. 

Finally, wildfires can often cause localized power outages, which can make it difficult to open your garage door when you need to evacuate. Although some garage doors can be opened manually, others may need a battery backup to operate properly without power. 

Access to water. Although you certainly can't fight the full force of a wildfire on your own, there are situations where you can stop a fire from starting or spreading on your property if you are properly prepared. For example, if embers from a distant fire drifts onto your lawn or your deck, you can prevent the flames from spreading by dousing it early. 

Make sure that you have connections to water at several points around your property, and keep enough hose on hand to reach all areas of your home, including detached outbuildings. If you have a pool or well, having a pump on hand can give you access to an emergency reservoir of water if needed. 

Smoke and fire 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.

Driveways and roads. In the even that your home is threatened by a wildfire, it is essential emergency vehicles have access to your driveway in order to get to your house, or any place on your property affected by a wildfire. Make sure that your driveway isn't obstructed by any major obstacles. Additionally, it might be worth checking local building codes to ensure that your driveway meets the requirements for emergency vehicles. 

Address. It's critical for your address to be easily visible if and when emergency services and fire fighters need to get to you. Make sure to keep your address clear of vegetation and repaint numbers as often as needed. Consider placing your address in several spots to ensure it can be seen quickly. 

Although you may not be ready to go through the process of completely retrofitting your home to harden it against wildfires, every little bit helps. Take care of the items you are able to reasonably implement in the short term, and keep the others in mind for future home improvement projects. 

Creating a defensible space

A defensible space is essentially a buffer zone you create between your home and things like trees and shrubs in your yard. It acts as a bubble by creating areas that are free from combustible material, which in turn makes it more difficult for the flames to spread. 

When creating a defensible space, you can generally divide the tasks into two categories depending on how close that space is to your home. 

Next to, on, and under the house. The spaces next to, beneath, above, and immediately next to your house are important to keep tidy and free of combustible materials.

  • Keep it clear of dead vegetation, like weeds, shrubs, leaves and branches. near house.
  • Keep your gutters and roof clear of debris.
  • Clear dry vegetation from under and around your deck.
  • Keep limbs and branches at least 10 feet away from the roof and walls. Not only does this prevent fires from spreading, but it can prevent limbs from damaging your roof and property in the event of a windstorm.
  • Avoid keeping garbage and recycling bins within 5 feet of your home.
  • Avoid keeping wood piles within 5 feet of your home.
  • Limit the amount of combustible outdoor furniture near your house.
  • Trim or prune shrubs and trees away from windows.
  • Avoid using dry wood mulch, and instead use gravel and pavers if possible.

Out in the yard. There are a number of ways you can potentially mitigate the spread of a fire out in your yard.

  • Create horizontal spaces between your trees, shrubs, and vegetation by trimming them 10 feet apart from one another.
  • Create vertical space between the lawn, shrubs, and trees by trimming limbs at least 6 feet off the ground.
  • Allow 3 times the height of any given shrub between the bottom of the tree limb and the top of the shrub. This prevents fire from spreading from the grass, to the shrub, to the tree in a process called a fuel ladder.
  • Remove dead, dry material like leaves, twigs, pine cones, and branches.
  • Keep the lawn trimmed to at least 4 inches.

Insurance: Evaluating coverage and taking inventory

Last, but certainly not least, you'll want to review your home insurance coverages and take an inventory of your personal belongings. 

Review home insurance coverages. Fortunately, fire is a common peril, or cause of loss, covered by almost every home and property insurance policy. However, it's a good idea to speak with your insurance agent or provider and review your policy. 

Take note of how your policy provides coverage for your dwelling, or home, but also other structures and outbuildings. Review coverage limits for your dwelling and your personal property to make sure you are adequately covered in the event of a wildfire (or any covered disaster for that matter). 

Take a home inventory. Taking inventory of your personal property is helpful for a number of reasons. In the event that a wildfire damages or destroys your home, it is essential to have an accurate list of your personal belongings within. Furthermore, creating an estimate will help ensure that your policy's coverage limits are adequate. 

Download Germania's Home Inventory Checklist here to help you keep track of your personal belongings!

Together with home hardening practices, creating defensible spaces puts your home and property in the best possible position when faced with the threat of a wildfire. 

Cleaning leaves from a gutter to protect against wildfires

To learn how Germania Insurance can help protect your property from the unexpected, request a quote online or reach out to one of our authorized agents today

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

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