Hotter and Hotter: Protecting Your Home from Wildfires

After a relatively mild year for wildfires in 2019, widespread fires in 2020 are already well above the 10-year average for January to September, with three more months of high wildfire risk left to go. As of September 29, there were 70 large fires burning in 10 states, and more than 44,000 fires of all sizes had burned over 7.4 million acres across the country since January.1

Unfortunately, in many areas, September is still early in the fire season. Nine of the ten costliest wildfires in U.S. history ignited in October, November, and December.2

In California and other western states, fire season is starting earlier and ending later each year, driven in large part by climate change. Warmer temperatures reduce the snowpack in the mountains and create earlier snowmelt in the spring, leading to drier vegetation more susceptible to fire. The fire season in the Sierra Nevada is estimated to have increased by 75 days.3

Are You in a Hot Spot?

In 2019, there were wildfires in almost every state. However, the dry, hot West generally faces the highest risk. Based on number of households with high or extreme risk of wildfire, the top 10 most fire-prone states are California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, Oklahoma, Oregon, Montana, and Utah. Other states with high risk to property and/or major fires over the last two years include Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.4

About 90% of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans through activities such as unattended campfires, burning debris, downed power lines, discarding cigarettes, and arson. Natural causes include lava flows and lightning, which sparked a vast complex of fires in northern California in August and September, 2020.5

Maintain a Survivable Space

Although the causes of wildfires may be outside your control, there are important steps you can take to help protect yourself, your loved ones, and your home.

  • Create a defensible perimeter around the outside of your home, free of trees and shrubs that could catch fire easily. Clean roof surfaces and gutters of pine needles, leaves, and branches to avoid accumulation of flammable materials.
  • Keep all combustibles such as firewood, picnic tables, and boats away from structures.
  • Attach a non-flammable screen over the flue opening of every chimney or stovepipe. Mesh openings of the screen should not exceed ½ inch.
  • Consider installing fire-resistant roofing and/or siding material. Wood siding, cedar shakes, exterior wood paneling, and other highly combustible materials should be treated with fire retardant chemicals.
  • Dispose of stove or fireplace ashes and charcoal briquettes only after soaking them in a metal pail of water.
  • Store gasoline in an approved safety can away from occupied buildings.
  • Locate propane tanks far enough away from buildings for valves to be shut off in case of fire.
  • Keep the area clear of flammable vegetation. Keep a garden hose connected to a faucet.

Create a Wildfire Action Plan

If you live in a fire-prone area, it’s wise to prepare in advance, even if you don’t expect a fire this year. A wildfire action plan should include:

  • ​An emergency supply kit
  • A list of possessions to take with you
  • A list of steps to take before you leave your home
  • A designated meeting place
  • A family communication plan

For more information on creating a wildfire action plan, assembling an emergency supply kit, and what to do in the event of an evacuation, see the CalFire website at www.readyforwildfire.org/Wildfire-Action-Plan/.

Review Your Insurance

Standard homeowners and renters policies generally cover damage caused by fire and smoke, or from firefighters putting out a fire, up to policy limits. Your insurance may also pay extra living expenses while your home is being repaired or rebuilt.

Your home and belongings should be insured for their full replacement cost. If you are underinsured, it could prove difficult or impossible to rebuild a structure or replace your lost belongings at current market prices.

A thorough home inventory — complete with photos, video, receipts, model numbers, and appraisals — could make it easier to settle with your insurer in the aftermath of a devastating fire. Copies of your inventory and other policy documents should be kept online, in a fireproof safe, or in a location away from your home.

Regardless of where you live, fire can be a threat to you, your family, and your home. Taking time to prepare now could help prevent you and your loved ones from enduring costly and devastating losses.