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Harden Your Home Against Wildfire — What Does That Mean?

By Roger Maybee —

One way or the other, by now you have probably heard the terms “firewise” and “harden your home.” But what does it really mean?

Being firewise is being knowledgeable on how wildfire behavior affects you. Hardening your home against wildfire just means taking steps to improve the chance of your home and structures withstanding ignition by the inevitable wildfire, firebrands and other factors we face every year.

Hardening your home starts with easy, small steps, that can make all the difference. Start at the top or your structure or home, and work your way down, clearing all combustibles from the roof, gutters, gables, eaves, windows, doors, siding, and out to five feet around the structure.

Then, if you can, bigger steps, like fire-resistant roofing, boxed eaves, dual pane windows, firewise non-combustible siding, and firebrand-proof venting, can improve home hardening more.

With all this rain we’ve been having we are going to have an abundance of grass. All this grass will be turning brown and drying out in the late spring.

The grass is going to grow through and around debris and other surface fuels leftover from fuel reduction projects. It’s going to grow up along roadways, driveways and downed trees and slash. Abundant heavy grass can be a major wildfire ignition hazard because the grass is a light flashy fuel, and causes fire to spread rapidly with the wind and uphill.

Ironically, with all the tree mortality, we are left with massive open areas where there was green tree canopy. These open areas will fill in with grass and new-growth brush and can act like ember pockets to catch firebrands. These light flashy fuel pockets can ignite the other downed fuels. So embers can actually pose a greater hazard than before the pine trees died off, especially in sloped areas.

You may want to do a hazard assessment on your individual properties based on the light fuels when the grass starts to grow. Assistance with assessments can be found at www.FirewiseMaderaCounty.org.

Defensible Space

As you know, every year some people lose their homes and most prized possessions to wildfire. It is critical to provide defensible space around your home, along with a hardened home, to provide the most protection you possibly can against wildfire.

It’s up to you to provide some help to the firefighters to protect their safety, and your home. They can’t do it all without your help.

So make sure you create a defensible space around all your structures and most importantly your home. Do it early. Do it now. And keep on doing it.

After your structures have all the little things cleared away. Double check. Repeat. Now work out from your home and structures and clear all combustible flammable material out at least 3 feet. Preferably 5 feet. Repeat.

Now move out to 30 feet with modest fuel reduction. Then 100 feet (the law). Then 200 feet, the home ignition zone (HIZ), if you can.

The Little Things Make All the Difference

I want to give you a brief firewise recap. If your home is Firewise by now, ‘hardened’ against wildfire, fantastic! If not, you are still putting yourself, and your family, at risk.

A properly hardened home will not easily burn from flames, embers, or heat, with or without firefighters defending it.

Even with no action taken by firefighters or emergency personnel, a hardened home is much more likely to survive intact. That is your goal. Your properly hardened home is truly a ‘fire wise’ home.

You may have seen Jack Cohen, US Forest Service Fire Scientist on the website videos. His research has revolutionized thinking about fire behavior and its mitigation.

His work has also proven, scientifically, that wildfire is not a tsunami like force laying waste to everything in its path. This allows us to more calmly address every situation logically, with science to back it up.

It’s the little things that can make all the difference. Embers and firebrands are the culprit. Literally most of the time. It’s a statistically proven fact that embers are far more likely to ignite any given structure during a wildfire, than what is called “direct flame impingement”, direct contact with flames.

Embers are small pieces of burning combustibles carried on the air. You typically see them after they’ve cooled into ash, landing on vehicles and elsewhere, during an active fire. Firebrands are larger pieces of burning material traditionally causing spot fires. Both embers and firebrands can ignite debris on or around your structures.

So address and harden your roof, gable vents, chimney, roof assembly, roofing type, eaves, eave vents, gutters, siding, windows, doors, foundation, foundation vents, and create a noncombustible 3 to 5 foot perimeter around your home.

The wildfire danger thus begins to be mitigated, making your home better able to withstand embers and even flames. All items being kept clear of combustible debris is a key element.

Firewise Home Hardening Refresher

You’ve got your evacuation plan. You’ve got your go kit. You’ve rehearsed. You signed up for MC Alert. You’ve got your defensible space. Right? If not, start now.

But defensible space alone is not enough. Defensible space provides safety for firefighters, and may protect your home from direct flame impingement ignition.

But it’s embers or firebrands that are most likely to ignite and destroy your home.

Even if you can’t make upgrades to your home and structures, just keeping your home and its immediate vicinity clean and clear of combustible materials will make a huge difference.

Combine that with defensible space and you are ready to start saving for more home hardening improvements to your home and structures in the future.

The Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP)

In 2008 the Madera County Board of Supervisors created the CWPP to move toward mitigating wildfire danger all over the county.

The Firewise Program dovetails with the CWPP in that both have the same overall objective, ultimately protecting assets at risk, life and property.

The CWPP has a list of the most at-risk communities in the county. We’ve been working hard to assist those communities to address wildfire danger mitigation. Your community may be listed.

We are all in this together whether or not your community is listed. Everyone needs to mitigate the danger, everywhere. However the CWPP does offer a good point of view from which we can focus our efforts.

Please visit www.FirewiseMaderaCounty.org for more about the CWPP.


Studying fire behavior scientifically reveals that you absolutely can alter fire behavior in a good way, by altering conditions on your property. Lessening the risk of catastrophic loss in a wildfire is achievable. You can do it.

When you are ready, band together with your neighbors and become a nationally recognized Firewise Community.

You may contact me at rpmaybee@sti.net (559) 760-7407.

Roger Maybee is the Firewise Madera County Coordinator


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