By Tim McGrath, CEO & President of Lighthouse Risk & Insurance Solutions and Assure Insurance
From the small snapshots and videos viewed through TVs, phones and computer screens across the country, the fires erupting throughout Southern California look like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror film. Smoke so black it looks like night. Entire mountain sides painted red with flames. Homes on fire, people running – all while firefighters work without sleep in a race against the wind.
So far, a total of four major wildfires have erupted in Southern California in the past week alone. The Thomas Fire in Ventura (consuming 96,000 acres and counting), the Rye Fire in Santa Clarita (consuming 7,000 acres and counting), the Creek Fire in Sylmar (so far consuming 12,000 acres and counting) and the Skirball fire in Bel-Air (consuming 475 acres and counting).
As a result, more than 200,000 residents have been forced to evacuate as their homes and communities are destroyed. And we say “and counting” because one of the scariest facts about these fires is their unpredictability and how quickly they spread – so by the time you read this, even with firefighters trying their hardest, these numbers will likely have already increased.
As California residents watch the news in horror as this and other wildfires erupt across their state and the West, they are more than aware that this sudden uptick in wildfires is more than unusual. And they would be right. Across the Western U.S., large wildfires (defined as more than 1,000 acres) have more than tripled since the 1970s. Fire season has also increased, now lasting an average of 105 days longer than in 1970.
This video shows the Skirball Fire near Beverly Hills.
Climate change is credited as one of the major reasons, most fires being the result of weather like the Santa Ana winds, sundowner winds and multi-year droughts. But though environmental factors keep fires surging, what a lot of people aren’t aware of is that a staggering 90% of wildfires are actually started by humans according to the National Park Service.
With all of this happening, if you are a resident in or near an area with a high wildfire risk, you may be wondering – what can you do? Is there anything at all you can do to protect your family and your property from wildfires? Though wildfires are a force to be reckoned with, there are a few preventative measures you can take:
How to Protect Your Home & Family from Wildfire
• Make sure you store emergency supplies in a “go bag” or container so you are ready to grab and leave quickly in the event of an evacuation. For tips on building your kit, visit https://www.ready.gov/build-a-kit.
• Create an emergency family evacuation plan – make sure your plan includes pets.
• Know multiple routes and safe ways out of the area in case you are evacuated – and if a fire occurs, pay attention to reports so you know what routes are clear and safe to use.
• Stay turned to phone alerts, TV or radio for the latest emergency instructions or evacuation orders.
• In the event of a potential evacuation:
– Turn on lights outside and in every room to make your house more visible in heavy smoke.
– Close all windows, vents, doors and fireplace screens – but keep windows and doors unlocked for fire fighters.
– Remove lightweight curtains and flammable window shades.
– Shut off gas at the meter and turn off pilot lights.
– Shut off the air conditioning.
– Have a ladder available and place it at the corner of your house for firefighters to quickly access your roof.
– Disconnect automatic garage door openers so doors can be opened by hand if you lose power.
– Move flammable furniture, including outdoor furniture, into the center of the home away from windows and sliding glass doors.
– Connect garden hoses. Fill garbage cans, tubs or large containers with water. Shut off natural gas from the source, and move propane or fuel oil supplies away from the house.
– Follow additional guidance from local authorities.
• Familiarize yourself with local emergency plans and know how to get there should you need to evacuate.
• If you see a wildfire but haven’t received evacuation orders, call 911. Don’t assume someone else has already called.
• Most importantly, if an evacuation is announced, leave immediately. Fires spread quickly and waiting may mean the difference between life and death.
• Don’t mow dry grass on windy days.
• Never pull your vehicle over in dry grass.
• Target shoot only in approved areas.
• Ensure campfires/bonfires are allowed, and if so, be sure to extinguish them completely.
• Dispose of charcoal briquettes and fireplace ashes properly.
• Do not use welders or any equipment that creates sparks outside on dry, windy days.
• Store combustible or flammable materials in approved safety containers away from the house.
• Keep gas grill and propane tank at least 15 feet from any structure. Do not grill during potentially dangerous fire weather conditions. Always have a fire extinguisher nearby.
• Keep trees and shrubs pruned six to ten feet from the ground.
• Remove leaf clutter and dead or overhanging branches.
• Mow your lawn regularly and dispose of cuttings and debris promptly.
• Store firewood away from the house.
• Maintain your irrigation system regularly.
• Familiarize yourself with local regulations regarding vegetative clearance, debris disposal and fire safety requirements for equipment.
• Create a ‘fire free’ area within five feet of your home, using non-flammable landscaping materials and/or high moisture content annuals and perennials.
• Water plants, trees and mulch regularly.
• Consider xeriscaping if you are affected by water-use restrictions.
• Plants should be carefully spaced, low-growing and free of resins, oils and waxes that burn easily.
• Use rated roofing materials – roofing material with a Class A, B or C rating is fire resistant and will help keep flames from spreading. Examples are: Composition shingle, metal, clay and cement tile.
• Use fire-resistant building materials on exterior walls. Examples include cement, plaster, stucco and masonry (concrete, stone, brick or block). Vinyl, while difficult to ignite, can fall away or melt when exposed to extreme head.
• Use double-paned or tempered glass on windows, which can help reduce the risk of fracture or collapse during extreme wildfires. Tempered glass is considered most effective. For skylights, glass is a better choice than plastic or fiberglass.
• ‘Box’ eaves, fascias, soffits and vents, or enclose them with metal screens. Vent openings should be covered with 1/8” metal screen.
• Protect overhangs and other attachments by removing vegetation and other fuels from areas like room additions, bay windows, decks, porches, carports and fences.
• Box in the undersides of overhangs, decks and balconies with non-combustible or fire-resistant materials.
• Fences constructed of flammable materials like wood should not be attached directly to the house. If it is attached, separate it from the house with masonry or a metal barrier.
Tim McGrath is the President & CEO of Lighthouse Risk & Insurance Solutions and Assure Insurance. He and his company specialize in insuring homes in high risk wild fire areas. For more information on Tim and his company, visit http://www.wildfirehomeinsurance.com/.
ReadyforWildfire.org, FEMA.gov, Ready.gov, NPS.gov, Firewise.gov, CaliforniaChaparral.org, ClimateCentral.org, LosAngeles.CBSLocal.com, ABC7.com, LATimes.com, NationalGeographic.com