Ultimate Guide for Homeowners Living in a Fire-Prone Area
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Whether you live in a fire-prone area or you want to better safeguard your home against a fire, there are a number of home alterations, insurance options and fire safety tips to make you feel confident if a fire is to ever affect your area or property.
Run through how to deal with residential fires as a homeowner, and download and print our checklist to quickly and safely prepare yourself and your home if a fire ignites in the area.
What causes residential fires?
According to the National Fire Protection Association, a fire department in the United States responds to a fire in the nation every 24 seconds. Furthermore, a residential fire occurs every 88 seconds. There are a number of ways that these residential fires are started, but you might be surprised by the leading cause.
- Cooking: Surprisingly, cooking is the leading cause of residential fires. And, not all of these fires are started by leaving food unattended. To avoid starting a fire while cooking make sure to keep appliances serviced and clean, so when you’re done using the toaster, oven or microwave, clean out crumbs or spills. Additionally, always have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and check for expiration every X months.
- Heating: Heating systems account for 9.6 percent of residential fires, but these fires can be prevented by routine maintenance. Professional heating maintenance should be conducted annually, preferably prior to turning on your heat for the first time in the winter. Additionally, keep anything that is flammable away from your heating system.
- Electrical malfunction: Nearly 6.5 percent of fires are caused by electrical malfunction, which are faults caused by changes in electric flows and equipment damages. You can avoid electrical malfunctions by keeping heat-producing appliances unplugged when you’re not using them, making sure your home’s electrical system is up-to-date and only using extension cords if they have been approved by an independent testing laboratory.
How can residential fires threaten my property?
- Your home can catch fire: This is a given, but your home can catch fire if there is a nearby fire by making contact with the flames, radiating with heat or being engulfed in flying embers.
- It can cause flooding: Fires affect the terrain and make it difficult for water to be absorbed during a rainstorm. Therefore, be aware that flooding could affect your home up to 5 years after a fire, and protect yourself with flood insurance.
- It can cause mudslides and landslides: Similar to flooding, fires release a gas that permeates the soil and forms a wax once it’s solidified. This causes debris, rocks, trees and plants to break loose and slide down a slope. If you have anything moveable on your property such as storage, an RV, a boat or anything else, it’s recommended to move it far from the bottom of a hill or mountain if you can.
- It can disrupt transportation, gas, power and phone lines: Even if your home survived a fire, you may not be able to live in it for a few weeks due to the destruction around you. Make sure you secure your valuables and lock your home if it’s not livable.
How can I reduce the threat of residential fires?
Fires can spread quickly, but there are a number of precautions you can take to protect your home if a fire is to occur in your area. Run through our list of fire safety tips for every area in the house and make the necessary changes to safeguard your property.
- Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors: Every state has their own regulations for landlords, but the National Fire Protection Association recommends that homes should have smoke alarms installed inside every bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home.
- Fireplaces: Get your fireplace and chimney inspected and cleaned regularly to avoid any threat to the home during a fire.
- Candle safety: Never burn a candle near something that could catch fire or leave it unattended even if you are in another room in the home.
- Sprinkler system: Although sprinkler systems are more common in commercial spaces, it could help stop a fire before it has a chance to spread in your home. Consider if it’s a worthwhile investment for your home.
- Portable fire extinguishers: Always have a portable fire extinguisher available in your kitchen and make sure that everyone in the home understands how it works.
- Keep air conditioner filters clean: Change out your air conditioner filter regularly to ensure cleaner air on your home during a nearby fire.
- Learn how to turn off utilities: Learn how to turn off your electricity and gas. If you turn them off before leaving your home, you can isolate the flammable material flowing throughout your home and prevent explosions during a fire.
- Maintain space adjacent to your home: It’s crucial to encompass your home with about 1 to 5 feet of noncombustible material aiming to cut off a rapidly growing fire from climbing the exterior walls. Noncombustible material includes cement, concrete, brick, gravel and sand.
- Create space between ground and siding: There should be 6 inches between the ground and the siding to avoid from your home catching fire. If you have a newer home, this gap is typically made up of reinforced concrete from the foundation.
- Maintain the debris on your roof: Not only does maintaining your roof prevent repairs in the future, but it will ensure that debris isn’t the reason your home catches fire. Sweep or blow all sticks, leaves or other debris that’s on your roof or in your gutters.
- Invest in Class A roof covering: Roof covering fire ratings are evaluated as Class, A, B, C or unrated, with Class A being the best resistance to fire. Typically, Class A roof coverings include asphalt fiberglass composition, concrete, and barrel-shaped tiles, which prevent homes from igniting.
- Use non-combustible material in your fences and gates: Untreated wooden fences fuel fires and can generate embers, which will result in more risk for your home. Consider metal or ignition-resistant lumber as a material for your fence.
- Cover vents: Cover all vents with wire mesh, so there is no entry point for embers to get into the home during a fire.
- Create space between trees and shrubs: Creating space between trees and shrubs will help slow down the growth of a fire close to your home.
- Separate low branches and plants: Similar to creating horizontal space between plants, separating plants vertically will help prevent a fire from spreading.
- Clean up area extending 30 feet around your home: If you have pine needles or leaves on the ground around your home, make sure to clean it up regularly so it’s less flammable.
Should I prepare in case of a residential fire?
If you’re living in a fire-prone area, you should prepare in advance to lower the risk of getting hurt or losing your home. Once the interior and exterior of your home is equipped with the precautions to fight against a fire, you’ll want to take these steps so you’re prepared if a wildfire sparks in your area.
- Sign up for your community warning system: Check to see if there is a system set up in your area. Additionally, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio provide emergency alerts across the U.S.
- Review evacuation routes and shelter locations: Your community has several ways to leave the area, so review the plans on your local city or county website. If you have pets or livestock, learn more about where you can safely leave them during a fire.
- Gather emergency supplies: Pull together a small emergency kit that will help get you, your family and your pets through the fire safely. Include enough N95 respirators for the entire family and any special needs such as asthma inhalers or medication.
- Invest in a fire safe: Keep the documents and valuables that you need in your home in a fire safe to protect them in an event of a fire.
- Create digital copies of important documents: Set up an online password-protected account where you can keep all of your documents safe if anything is to happen to your home.
- Stay updated on air quality: Check AirNow to see what the air quality is in your area, so you’re aware of it’s it safe to be exposed to the outdoors.
What to do if a fire ignites in my area?
If there is a fire in your community, there are immediate actions you can take to prepare in the chance that you are evacuated. Remember that winds can change direction and fires can spread quickly, so leave immediately if you are under a wildfire warning.
Prepare to evacuate
If there is a fire in your area, take follow these five fire safety tips to prepare for evacuation before anything else.
- Prepare your car: Back your car into the garage with the hood facing outwards, and keep keys in the ignition in the off position for a quick getaway.
- Prepare the garage: Close your garage door but leave it unlocked and disconnected from an automatic door opener in the chance that electricity is cut off.
- Grab a flashlight and portable radio: These two items will keep you updated and prepared to leave in the case of being cut off from electricity or service. Reference our reviews of the rechargeable flashlights and the tactical flashlights for knowing which flashlights will be the best to have by your side.
- Designate a safe meeting place: If you and your family split up, designate a place to meet and a and contact person in case you have no way to contact each other.
- Prepare 2 to 3 alternate escape routes: In the case that roads are down or the fire is approaching from the usual road you use to exit from your home, you’ll want to prepare 2 to 3 routes you can take to leave your home.
Even if you have prepared the exterior of your home for a potential residential fire, there are additional steps you can take before officially being evacuated.
- Move your outdoor furniture: Quickly move your outdoor furniture away from the house or into storage to avoid it catching fire and bringing embers closer to your home.
- Close all openings: Close your windows, attic openings, fireplace and vents from the outdoors.
- Attach garden hoses to faucets: In the case that you don’t evacuate in time, hoses can safeguard yourself from an approaching fire.
- Shut all valves: Avoid potential explosions by cutting off your butane and natural gas valves.
There are quick steps you can take inside of your home before you are officially evacuated in the aim to halt or slow down the progress of a fire.
- Close off every room: Shut every door inside of your house to slow down the fire if it reaches inside of your home.
- Turn on all lights: Make it more visible in the smoke for emergency responders by turning on all of the lights in your home.
- Move furniture away from windows: Slow down the fire from developing by moving away items that could catch fire from the window.
Prepare a getaway bag
If you have time, pull together a bag of important items that you don’t want to risk losing and would be difficult to replace. Place them in the car as soon as you have them prepared for a quick escape.
- Medications: Take any medications with you critical to your daily health in the event that you aren’t able to get it refilled immediately.
- Emergency food: You should have a three-day supply for you and your family. Check out our recommendations here.
- Water: Remember that you’ll need extra water for preparing dried food, about 24 ounces per person per day. Portable water filters, like some of our picks for the best filtering water bottles, can also purify dirty water you find in an emergency.
- Electronics: Take your laptop and cellphone as it will help you stay updated on the state of the fire and your home.
- Chargers: Take chargers so you don’t lose your channel of communication due to power.
- Family heirlooms: Take any family heirlooms such as jewelry, art, journals and more.
- Family photo albums: Take all of your sentimental family photo albums.
Gather important documents
Important documents will prove who you are and that you own your home, so you’ll want to have them on hand if you evacuate. Pull together all of the important documents that are difficult to replace.
- Driver’s license
- The deed to your house
- Proof of insurance
- Medical records
- Social security cards
You want to cover up to safeguard yourself against the heat and flying embers by dressing in the following 100% cotton clothing.
- Long pants
- Long sleeve shirt
- Glasses or goggles
- N95 mask
Download and print a checklist to quickly and safely prepare yourself and your home if a fire ignites in the area.
What to do if I’ve been evacuated?
If you’re under mandatory evacuation, leave your home immediately. Even if you didn’t have time to prepare for evacuation through the steps above, it’s more important to get you, your family and your pets to safety.
Locate the closest shelter in your area through Red Cross and stay updated on the status of the fire through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio. Then follow these steps after you are evacuated from your home.
- Wait for the go-ahead: Although you might be anxious to get back to your home as soon as the fire passes through, wait to hear confirmation from authorities before you return to your home. There could still be hot ash, dangerous debris and power lines down.
- Confirm water safety: Before turning on your tap water, confirm that it is safe to drink with local authorities.
- Reach out to friends and family: Mark yourself safe on social media and text or call your loved ones so they know you are safe.
- Document property damage: Take pictures of all of the damage in your home and conduct an inventory of everything that is damaged or gone. Make sure that you’re wearing an N95 mask to avoid breathing in dust particles.
- Consider flood insurance: Wildfires kill vegetation and leave the ground unable to absorb water, making these areas vulnerable to major floods. If you had a fire in your area, it’s recommended to invest in flood insurance to protect your property.
Should I invest in home fire insurance?
If you have homeowners insurance, it’s likely that it provides fire insurance coverage. However, there are often coverage limits and exclusions, meaning that if you were to lose your home to a fire, it may not be completely covered.
Remember that insurance companies are businesses, and their agents will try to sell you that their packages are the best options around. Make sure to shop around and truly understand what you’re getting out of the policy you purchase.
One of the most important things to be aware of is the difference between purchasing replacement cost homeowners insurance and actual cash value homeowners insurance. The reason being a replacement cost policy will put you in the same position you were before purchasing your home and the items in it. It will allow you to replace everything without taking into account how they have depreciated over time. It’s considered the superior policy.
An actual cash value policy will provide you with the cash for the item or home by taking depreciation into account. For example, if you bought a computer for $1,000 two years prior, the insurance company will take into account how much that computer has depreciated over time, which could be more than half of the initial cost, while a replacement cost policy will help replace the computer.
Nature will run its course, but if you’re prepared for a fire to hit your area, you will feel confident that you’ve done everything in your power to keep you, your family and your property safe.
Sources: USFA | Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety | National Fire Protection Association | Los Angeles Fire Department | Ready.gov | USFA, Fire Estimate Summary | NFPA, Fire Loss in the United States During 2017 | The Balance | National Fire Protection Association | LA Times