Before you ask us for a fire defensive landscape, please harden your home
September 2023. By Cassy Aoyagi: Alongside Hawaii’s losses weighing heavy on hearts, we see amplified fire fear. That’s natural. Yet, fear often clouds our ability to see and take the most productive action.
When fear rises, people look out to the wild with trepidation and want to pave entire landscapes. That won’t save homes or lives. Thinking home first will. The fire scientists, fire fighters, and fire-defensive architects who have taught us to fear less have been sounding this warning for years. Fire Defensive Architect Amanda Cavallo perfectly defined our true problem:
From a built environment perspective, it’s important to understand that buildings and structures are the first thing to perish in a wildfire and provide the most fuel for a wildfire. We use materials in our building and construction that are flammable, chemical, synthetic, combustible and explosive.
Insurance research leads us to some calm, clear-eyed solutions.
The first of the 10 fire defensive actions we hope you’ll take is to think home first. That involves looking at where on your home embers could gain access to the interior or gather to build enough heat to ignite the exterior of your home. Cavallo added:
[Home fires] start because the worst impacts are due to wind blown embers that can travel for miles and land on roofs, get in through vents, and will burn a structure from the inside out. The biggest danger is to the home – that is where we need to start.
Here are highly effective home-first actions, from low-cost to high. (Yes, we’re being a bit sneaky here, as thinking home first involves a few actions.)
- Maintenance: Block any spaces between roof and decking (“birdstopping) and in siding – we hear gorilla tape can work wonders in a pinch! Keep your roof, gutters and the base of your home free of debris.
- Vents: Cover chimney and other vents with “spark arresting” mesh screens.
- Gutters: Install non-combustible leaf guards. (Bonus: This will save rainy season maintenance too!)
- Attached Fence/Gate: Add a metal plate where the gate attaches to the home. Replace wood gates with metal or composite. Avoid designs that could catch and hold embers.
- Eves: Install soffits if you have an overhang. Install fire resistant (1-hour rating) soffits and fascia.
- Doors: Add weather stripping to doors and shutters to sliding doors. Replace wooden garage doors, particularly if they are not solid-core.
- Decks: Replace plastic, wood plastic and softwoods with hard woods and be sure to select sizes that comply with California building codes.
- Windows + Skylights: Replace with fire resistant materials, tempered glass – this includes windows in doors!
- Roofs: Re-roof with Class-A materials (e.g. composition, metal or tile)
- Siding: Replace siding that could burn (wood) or melt (vinyl) with fire resistant materials such as brick, stone, or stucco, starting with the vertical six inches closest to the ground.
To get a sense of what this looks like, tour the model Fire Resilient Home designed by architect Clark Stevens as an educational tool for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains and LA County Fire Department’s Forestry Division.
For a more detailed checklist and cost versus efficacy assessment, see the House Upgrade Section of DefensibleSpace.org. If you are will apply these insights to your home, don’t do it alone! If you live in Malibu, city inspectors will help you for free. In Simi Valley or the Santa Monica Mountains? The Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains will provide a Home Ignition Zone Evaluation for free – they will also train you in the evaluation technique if you aim to be a resource for your community.
Of course, all of this home-work will be much easier if the five feet around your home is ember resistant and clear of artwork, furnishings, toys, tools, wood piles, storage, and container gardens. We would be very happy to help you create this ember resistant Zone 0, which will be required for all those in high and very high fire sensitivity areas by January 2024. In a medium-high area? Let’s get ahead of things. We love you, and we want to know we’ve done all we can to keep you safe.
Sources and Resources
Ember Resistant Zone 0 Requirements