Be Ember Aware! 10 tips to help you prepare.

Tip #1 - Stop Shaking

The most reliable way to predict which houses will survive a wildfire and which will be destroyed is by looking at the roof.  

Houses with wood shake or shingle roofs are many times more likely to be destroyed during a wildfire. Using wood shakes or shingles for roofs in high fire hazard areas is like stacking hundreds of pounds of kindling on top of your home. During the hot summer months, the shakes or shingles can be nearly bone dry and easily ignited by embers. The embers come from pieces of burning material that can be lofted high into the air during a wildfire and travel a mile or more from the actual fire.

Unfortunately, there is no effective, inexpensive long-term solution to the ember threat to wood roofs. We recommend replacing wood shake or shingle roofs with a rated, fire-resistant roofing material, such as asphalt composition shingles, metal, or concrete or clay tile. Although this can be expensive, it may well be the one thing that saves your home when the embers arrive.

Tip #2 - Unclutter the Gutter

Rain gutters attached to the edge of your roof are perfect for catching embers during wildfire. Burning embers can land in the gutters and if they are filled with dried leaves, pine needles, and twigs, a fire can start and possibly ignite the roof, roof sheathing, and fascia. Even houses with fire rated roofs are vulnerable to this type of ember attack. Rain gutters made of vinyl will melt and drop into flower beds, igniting plants next to the house and maybe even combustible siding. To keep your home safe, we suggest that you:

  • Remove all dried leaves, pine needles or other materials from your rain gutters before fire season. Over the winter, debris often accumulates in them.
  • Keep your ladder handy and check your rain gutters throughout the fire season, cleaning them out as necessary.
  • If a wildfire is approaching and there is no time to clean out the debris, plug the rain gutter down spout with a tennis ball, or something similar so that the down spout will be plugged, and fill the rain gutter with water.

Tip #3 - Chucking Your Wood

One of the most common ember hazards homeowners create is the placement of firewood stacks next their home. During a wildfire, hundreds of burning embers could become lodged within the stack. The dry, high winds that often accompany wildfire can fan the embers and cause ignition. Once burning, the firewood stack can jeopardize just about any home, regardless of construction material, because of its ability to ignite combustible siding, provide a flaming exposure to windows and break the glass, or climb to the eave and possible enter into the attic.

Firewood should be stored at least 30 feet from the house, deck, and other structures during fire season. If the firewood stack is located uphill, make sure burning logs won’t roll downhill and ignite the home. Don’t place the stack under tree branches or adjacent to wood fences that are connected to the house. Bring just enough wood for the winter in close to the house after fire season is over. Another option is to store firewood inside the garage, but make sure embers can’t enter your garage though gaps between the door and framing.  Don’t let your firewood stack be the kindling for your house fire.

Tip #4 - Deck Danger

Decks are a common feature of homes situated in high fire hazard areas. They are also one of the parts of your home that are vulnerable to embers during wildfire.  This applies to decks comprised of wood boards as well as those made from plastic and wood-plastic composite deck boards. If your deck ignites, the flames can ignite your combustible siding, break the glass on an adjacent window or sliding glass door, or climb to the eave and burn into your attic. If you have a deck and live in a high fire hazard area, you should consider the following tips:

  • Keep the gaps between deck boards free of pine needles, leaves and other debris. This tip also applies to intersection between your deck and your house. Embers can become lodged in the gaps and ignite the deck. 
  • The area underneath the deck is particularly susceptible to ember attack. Don’t store firewood, gas cans, lawn mowers, cardboard or other combustible materials under the deck and keep it free of weeds, pine needles and leaves. Consider enclosing the deck with solid skirting, such as siding that is properly vented, or with 1/8-inch wire mesh to limit ember penetration and reduce maintenance. Don’t enclose it with wooden lattice.
  • Rotted or otherwise poor condition wood is more easily ignited by embers than wood in good condition. Replace deteriorated wooden deck boards and posts with new ones.
  • Install metal flashing between the deck and the side of the house. Be sure the flashing is installed to allow proper drainage of water.
  • If wildfire is threatening, remove combustible materials from the deck, including newspapers and magazines, baskets, door mats, dried flower arrangements, and place them inside the house or garage.  Propane tanks should be placed at a distance 30-ft or more from the house.

Tip #5 - Vulnerable Vent Dilemma

 Vents play a critical role in the long-term preservation of your home by allowing excess moisture to escape from the attic and crawl space. If moisture was allowed to accumulate in these areas, the wood components of your home could be threatened by mold and decay fungi.

During a wildfire, vent openings have also been shown to be one vulnerable spots for ember entry into your home.  This creates a dilemma for homeowners. Many vents use wire mesh coverings. Some building codes set the minimum mesh size for these at 1/4 inch. Smaller mesh sizes can become clogged by paint, cobwebs, debris, etc. that will reduce air flow. Unfortunately, the 1/4-inch mesh is not effective in preventing ember entry into the attic, eave, and crawl space vents. For existing homes, consider the following:

  • Replace 1/4-inch mesh with 1/8-inch mesh, if building codes and required air flow allow. Be sure to keep the mesh openings unclogged.
  • Use metal wire mesh, not plastic or fiberglass.
  • Don’t store combustible materials, such as paper, clothing, etc. in the attic or crawl space.
  • Clear fallen pine needles, leaves, dried grass and other debris from around vents (a particular problem with through-roof vents, such as a dormer or ridge vent).
  • Do not plant shrubs in front of or underneath vent openings.
  • Create pre-made covers out of plywood to install over vent openings if wildfire is approaching and there is time. In an emergency situation, it may help to fold several layers of aluminum foil and staple over vent openings.

New ember resistant vent designs are becoming available to consumers. Check with your local fire marshal for advice on these and other measures to reduce the potential of embers entering your home. 

Tip #6 - A Noncombustible Must

During a wildfire, thousands of windblown embers may pelt your house like hail during a storm. Many of the embers that strike the side of the house can fall to the ground and accumulate next to your home. If your neighborhood is asked to evacuate as wildfire approaches, the embers can lie there, glowing unattended for hours or even days. If the embers are in contact with a wood or other combustible material sided house, or something that can ignite in the flowerbed, your home could be in jeopardy.

The vegetation, landscape materials and other items located immediately adjacent to your home have critical influence on house survival during wildfire and ember attack. Homeowners living in high fire hazard areas need to create a “noncombustible (or low combustible) area” within 3 -5 feet of their houses. Some of the important “do’s” and “don’ts” of a noncombustible area include:

Dos…

  • Do use hard surfaces such as concrete, brick and rock
  • Do use green, healthy well maintained lawn
  • Do use gravel or rock mulches
  • Do use irrigated herbaceous plants such as annual and perennial flowers and groundcovers
  • Do use short, less than 18” in height, deciduous shrubs, but don’t locate them in front of foundation vents

Don’ts…

  • Don’t locate the firewood pile, or other combustible materials such as lumber in this area
  • Don’t use wood, bark or rubber mulches
  • Don’t have uncovered garbage cans or recycling bins here
  • Don’t have dried grass and weeds, fallen pine needles and leaves or dead branches located in this area
  • Don’t use ornamental evergreen plants, such as  shrub junipers
  •  Don’t wait - take action now before the embers arrive.

Tip #7 – Green Gas Cans

Ornamental junipers are one of the most popular plants in northern California landscapes and for good reason. Juniper shrubs are drought tolerant, stay green year-round and require little care.

Unfortunately, ornamental junipers have also earned the nickname “green gas cans” by firefighters. This is because they can burn very intensely during wildfire. They also have the ability to harbor burning embers undetected in their crowns and in the plant litter underneath, only to ignite the shrub hours later after the fire front and firefighters have passed through the neighborhood.

Several plant attributes contribute to the juniper’s reputation as a fire hazard. These include:

  • They are dense plants. There is usually a lot more plant material, i.e., potential fire fuel, in a 3-foot tall juniper than there is in other similar sized shrubs. For example, compare a juniper to a red twig dogwood.
  • Junipers have a bad habit of retaining clumps of dead leaves and twigs within their crowns. Pull back the branches of a mature juniper and see for yourself. These little “jackpots” of fuel can be ignited by embers. Thick layers of dead plant debris also build up underneath the shrubs. Since the juniper branches are so thick and the leaves can be irritating to the skin, most people don’t remove the plant litter.
  • Like most coniferous plants, junipers contain oils and resins. These chemicals can cause the juniper to burn intensely.

Tip #8 - Window Warnings

Typically, the weakest parts of the exterior walls of your home during a wildfire are windows. Radiant heat and direct contact by flames can break window glass. This happens because the window glass that you can see heats to a different temperature than the glass protected by the window frame. This difference in temperature causes the glass to crack. If the broken glass falls out during a wildfire, embers can enter your home and ignite it from the inside. An open, screen-less window, is the most vulnerable to ember attack.  Our “Be Ember Aware” window tips include the following:

  • Install windows that are least dual-paned with tempered glass. It will resist greater fire intensities than single pane windows. The type of frame material used, such as vinyl, wood, or metal, is not as important as the type of glass.
  • Remove wooden flower boxes from under windows or construct them of fire resistant materials and use fire resistant plants. Do not use wood or bark mulches in the planter boxes.
  • Do not plant large, dense shrubs such as ornamental juniper under windows.
  • Do not place the firewood stack under windows.
  • Prepare 1/2-inch plywood covers that are sized and labeled for your windows. If there is time, you can attach these covers before you evacuate. Shutters (instead of the plywood covers) can also be used.
  • Decayed wood window sills should be replaced. Decayed wood is easier to ignite than wood in good condition.
  • Move easily ignited materials, such as curtains and overstuffed furniture, away from the window. If the window glass breaks and falls away, embers could enter the house and ignite them.
  • Before evacuating, make sure all your windows are closed. These  include basement, garage, and vehicle windows.

Tip #9 - Don’t Be “Fuelish”

In recent years, there has been a lot of effort put into the creation of fuel breaks around some of western Nevada’s high fire hazard communities. Fuel breaks are usually a strip of land where flammable vegetation has been removed and less hazardous vegetation has been retained or planted. In our area, this often means mowing sagebrush and bitterbrush with machinery and leaving the grasses and wildflowers. Fuel breaks vary in width, ranging from 30 feet or less to more than 100 feet.

Surprising to many people, the primary purpose of a fuel break is not necessarily to stop an oncoming fire. Typically, fuel breaks are created to improve the ability of firefighters to control an advancing wildfire. A fuel break can reduce fire intensity, provide an area to light a backfire, improve access for firefighters, and improve the effectiveness of fire retardants dropped from aircraft.

Unfortunately, fuel breaks can also provide a false sense of security to the members of a communtiy. Some homeowners assume that once the fuel break is created, they are fire safe and that no further action on their part is required. This is not true. Wind driven embers can be transported over the fuel break and ignite new fires on the other side. Homes that have not prepared for the ember threat are vulnerable despite the presence of the fuel break.

While community level fuel breaks are important in reducing the wildfire threat, they are not enough. Homeowners must continue to do their part by creating defensible space around their home and making their properties resistant to ignition from embers.

Tip #10 - Don’t Wait

Most homes are destroyed by wildfire because wind driven burning embers come into contact with something easily ignited on, in or near the home. When evaluating your home and property’s vulnerability to embers, you should do it in the context of wildfire conditions. You should assume:

  • Hot temperatures, very low humidity, and strong gusting winds.
  • Poor visibility due to smoke.
  • No electricity.
  • Little or no water pressure.
  • No telephone, including cell phone service.
  • Panicking people acting irrationally.
  • Firefighters will not be protecting your home and will likely not even be in your neighborhood.
  • You and your family will not be present.
  • Thousands of burning embers coming from burning pieces of bark, pine cones, branches, and construction materials are being driven by winds into your house and onto your roof.

Now assume that your home is exactly as you left it this morning when you left for work. Would it survive under these conditions? Did you leave a window open? Did you forget to close the garage door? Is the firewood pile stacked next to the house? Are the garbage cans on the back porch full and not covered by lids? Take steps now to reduce the ember threat to your home. Waiting until the fire starts may cost you your home.