We’ve heard the advice for years — that clearing brush and creating fire breaks will protect homes from wildfires. But a new look at recent California wildfires shows that fuel breaks are doing very little to protect homes because the fires are wind-driven. And you can’t block the wind. That’s led to one fire expert’s advice to place more importance on fire-proofing your home.
Research scientist Alexandra Syphard says, the state’s effort to clear dry brush may be giving people a false sense of security. She says, millions of dollars in state-funding would be better spent fire-proofing homes than creating expensive fire breaks.
Governor Gavin Newsom approved $32 million in funding for a fire prevention strategy that is based on vegetation management. As reported by the L.A. Times, it was part of an emergency proclamation to thin trees, clear shrubs, and “protect the lives and property of Californians.”
It might seem logical to get rid of the debris that would feed a wildfire. But, when Syphard did an assessment on the effectiveness of fuel breaks, she found, “Time and time again… fuel is one of the least important factors when it comes to protecting the home.” (1)
Most Destructive Fires are Wind-Driven
According to the Times, the 10 most destructive wildfires on record in California have all been driven by the wind. Those 10 fires destroyed almost 40,000 homes and killed 170 people. Seven of those fires have happened in just the last five years.
Those winds howl across all parts of California. In the South, they are known as the Santa Ana Winds. In the Santa Barbara area, they are called Sundowners. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, they are often referred to as Diablos.
Those winds created a fire “monster” in Paradise, California, last year. The wind-whipped Camp fire is the deadliest California wildfire on record. It killed 86 people and destroyed almost 19,000 homes. Firefighters say, gale-force winds blew glowing embers throughout the region, with complete disregard for any fire breaks that were supposed to protect the area.
Former Paradise fire chief, Jim Broshears, told the Times, “It jumped over anything that we had done by a long range. By the time the main fire hit Paradise, we had fire all over the place from spot fires.” The town also lacked a good evacuation plan, so many people became trapped by the fast-moving flames.
The Tubbs fire, in Santa Rosa, had blown down from the mountains and moved right into the Coffey Park subdivision. It wasn’t considered a high fire risk area, but the wind knows no boundaries and blew right through a developed area, leveling blocks upon blocks of homes.
Fire Breaks Can Be Useful
That kind of devastation has repeated itself with every one of these wind-driven wildfires. Fire breaks haven’t stopped them, although firefighters say they can help contain a wildfire if there are no high winds. Syphard’s research shows that firebreaks are useful “if” firefighters are using them. She says, that’s the only reason a fire has stopped at a fire break. In wind-driven fires, it’s often too dangerous for firefighters to station themselves on a fire break.
Cal Fire director Thom Porter says, firebreaks can also slow a fire down, as people are evacuated. And, they can be used by firefighters to help create a defensible fire line. But Syphard says they have not done much to prevent the massive amounts of damage California has been experiencing. She says, the state’s priorities are misplaced when it comes to protecting people and property. Right now, the focus is on vegetation management but she says the money would be better spent helping homeowners with fire-resistant retrofits.
Wildfire Risk Is Here to Stay
Cal Fire Director, Thom Porter, told the Times, “In California, every acre that can burn, will burn someday —- and we all need to recognize that.” One Paradise fire victim says, during the Camp fire, it wasn’t the flames that burned homes, but the embers that the wind blew on rooftops. Some were even sucked into air vents and ignited homes from inside the attic. Those fires could have been prevented with retrofits.
Reducing vegetation around your home will help lower your fire risk, but If you are a California homeowner, you may want to focus less on vegetation management and more on what you can do to make your home fire-resistant.
Since I live smack dab in the middle of a fire zone in Southern California where the Santa Ana winds come barreling through at 80 miles an hour… Rich and I have opted for metal roofs, stucco, and no trees near our structures. We even found metal siding that looks like wood from a company called Longboard. And, most importantly, we don’t store flammables near our home.
Our next door neighbor, who lost his home in the Malibu fire last year had stored flammable products, like paint, underneath his home and under the deck. When the flames traveled up the brush to the home, the paint cans ignited and the home burned down from the inside. The surrounding trees were untouched. It’s also important to make sure you have no openings where embers can enter the home.
There’s plenty of information on the internet. You can get a PDF download from disastersafety.org. It’s the California edition of “Protect Your Property from Wildfire” by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. (2)
If you do own rental property in California, this might be a good time to consider selling the property and exchanging, tax deferred, for properties in other parts of the country where natural disasters are covered by normal hazard insurance. You can sell in California while demand and prices are high, and exchange for multiple properties in places like Texas, Georgia, Florida or Ohio. This will not only increase your cash flow, it will also offer more diversification. If you exchange one property for say, five, you will have more chance of receiving income, even if one or two of your properties are vacant or damaged somehow.
(1) LA Times Article
(2) Disaster Safety: Protect Your Property from Wildfire