Man, it’s getting hot in here. Wildfires are becoming a threat to increasing numbers of Americans as a changing climate creates more favorable conditions for conflagrations across the country. Hotter weather combined with longer and more severe droughts are bad news when it comes to wildfire prevention.

Dry underbrush and foliage make for perfect fuel for a fire caused by some less-than-careful campers or a careless cigarette smoker. These abnormal conditions allow fires to spread faster and farther than they traditionally would, making them that much more difficult to contain and extinguish.

Wildfires are most common in the West, but Florida and other southern states also experience significant wildfire activity, something that current trends will only worsen.

Why Risk Reduction instead of Prevention?

Smokey the Bear with fire risk sign

The importance of fire safety cannot be understated. Wildfires can, of course, occur naturally and are usually caused by lightning strikes. However, recent research suggests that human activity causes most wildfires (84 percent!).

That being said, I’m sure all of you reading this are ultra-responsible, meaning you are more likely to be dealing with the consequences of a fire that someone else started.

Reducing Wildfire Risk on Your Property

We’ll let Smokey the Bear deal with the fire starters, but for everyone else, let’s talk risk reduction. When dealing with an encroaching fire, the best thing to do is evacuate. Evacuating requires time, and that means risk reduction with forest fires or wildfires is mostly concerned with slowing or stopping the spread of the fires.

The longer it takes a fire to reach your property, the more time you and your family will have to evacuate to safety.

Create a buffer zone using landscaping

green zone between homes and trees

If you live in an area with regular wildfires, be intentional about the layout of your yard. Vegetation serves as ready-made fuel for wildfires, and eliminating or modifying brush, trees, and other plants near your home reduces the risk of a quickly spreading fire.

Consult a professional landscaping contractor for a fire risk assessment and for help making your yard safer. Controlled burns can also be used to slow or prevent the spread of fires but should only be performed by professionals.

Landscaping tips for reducing fire risk:

  • Create a 30-foot “green zone” around your home with minimal vegetation aside from grass.
  • Replace highly flammable plants like pine, evergreens, and junipers with fire-resistant species.
  • Move shrubs and other plants away from the sides of your home.
  • Keep branches and shrubs pruned within 15 feet of your home.
  • Clear the “green zone” of leaves, underbrush, and fallen limbs.
  • Move combustible materials like firewood and propane tanks away from your house.
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Remodel with fire-resistant materials

The next time you update a part of your home, whether you’re upgrading, remodeling, or making an addition, consider using fire-resistant or non-combustible materials. The longer it takes for the materials to begin burning, the more time you have to get your family and pets to safety.

Though you can’t make your home impervious to fire, you can definitely make the fire work for it by employing certain materials throughout your home. The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety has a great series of regional guides about retrofitting homes for wildfire risk reduction.

Home upgrades and maintenance that reduce fire risk:

  • Use non-combustible roofing materials such as fiberglass shingles, slate, metal, clay, or concrete.
  • Keep gutters clear of leaves and other debris.
  • Use fire-resistant materials for your siding, including stucco, metal, brick, cement shingles, or concrete.
  • If not replacing, treat wood siding with fire retardant chemicals periodically.
  • Enclose spaces underneath decks and porches.
  • Install double- or triple-pane glass and fire-resistant shutters or drapes.

Pay attention to emergency officials

In a “best” worst-case scenario, local or state officials would order evacuations well in advance of fires nearing any homes or populated areas, giving residents ample time to safely leave. Be prepared to act on these warnings immediately.

Fires can spread incredibly quickly, and there are plenty of reasons why a person might not learn of an evacuation order for quite some time. That’s why slowing the spread of fires is crucial, particularly if you live in a limited-access area.

Wildfire Risks Are Far-Reaching

aerial image of wildfire smoke over washington

Aside from the very real danger to life and property for those in close proximity, the effects of large-scale fires can stretch far beyond what you might expect.

In late 2016, Atlanta-metro area residents experienced days of hazy skies as large amounts of smoke from forest fires in North Georgia and neighboring states settled over the region. This can cause or exacerbate health problems in areas far removed from the fire itself, particularly for asthmatics or allergy sufferers like myself.

The bottom line:

Fires can be uniquely dangerous; once one is on the way, your only options are to either extinguish it or evacuate to a safer area. You can’t ride out a fire the same way you could a storm.

If you live in an area with a significant risk of wildfires, consider altering your landscaping and updating the exterior materials on your home. These changes may not save your home, but they’ll provide precious extra time to save the most valuable things: the lives of you, your family, and your pets.