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Ask Brian: How Do I Prepare for a Wildfire?

By Brian Kline | July 20, 2021

Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to [email protected].

Question from Lorrie in ID: Hi Brian. My family and I recently made a big lifestyle change. After several visits, we moved from an east coast metro area to what I consider a wilderness area in North Idaho. Over the past six weeks, I’ve learned that we are in an area considered susceptible to wildfires. What I’m told is that drought conditions coupled with historic high temperatures have raised the fire danger rating to very high and extreme across northern Idaho. They actually have a “wildfire season” here that typically lasts from summer through the first significant rain or snow during the fall. I’m sure you will tell me that we should have done more research before making such a dramatic change. But what I really want to know are some practical steps that we can take to protect ourselves and our home before a fire gets started.

Answer: Hello Lorrie. There are three important steps that you want to take to prepare for the possibility of a wildfire. The first is taking action to make your home reasonably fire-resistant. Second is having a plan and supplies in place before a wildfire becomes a threat. Third is evacuating when you’re told that a fire might be endangering you and your home.

Lorrie, since you’re in the middle of the fire season, you should prioritize having a plan and supplies ready before spending time making your home fire-resistant. One of the first things to do is find several ways to leave your area. Drive the evacuation routes and find shelter locations. Prepare an emergency kit (including one that you can hand carry). Assume that you will not have time to search for the supplies you need or shop for them.

Here is a basic list that you may want to customize based on your family’s needs.

  • Face masks or coverings.
  • Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person.
  • Map marked with your evacuation routes.
  • Prescriptions and medications.
  • Special supplies for infants or others with special needs.
  • Change of clothing.
  • Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses.
  • An extra set of car keys, credit cards, cash, or traveler’s checks.
  • First aid kit.
  • Flashlight with extra batteries.
  • Battery-powered radio with extra batteries. (Don’t depend on being able to recharge batteries.)
  • Sanitation supplies.
  • Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.).
  • Pet food and water.

Items to take if time and space allow:

  • Bedding supplies.
  • Easily carried valuables.
  • Family photos and other irreplaceable items.
  • Personal computer information on hard drives and disks.
  • Chargers for cell phones, laptops, etc.

FEMA provides an app for real-time alerts from the National Weather Service. You also want to have contact information for local authorities.

Here are the common steps you want to take in advance to protect your home against wildfire.

  • Hopefully, your home was built with fire-resistant materials, and you should always make repairs or modifications using fire-resistant materials.
  • Install dual sensor smoke alarms on every level of your house (that test for smoke and carbon monoxide).
  • Keep a wide swath of land around your house (30 feet) cleared of flammable vegetation. Remove leaves, dead limbs and twigs, rubbish, etc.
  • Remove tree branches that extend over the roof.
  • Remove limbs within 15 feet of the ground. (Strongly consider thinning trees near the house so that the treetops are no closer the 15 feet apart.)
  • Keep the roof and gutters clean.
  • Request the power company clear branches from power lines.
  • Remove vines and any fire hazards from the walls of the home.
  • Mow grass regularly.
  • Clear a 10-foot area around propane tanks and the barbecue.
  • Do not store old newspapers or other combustibles near the home. Keep firewood at least 100 feet away and preferably uphill from your home. Store gasoline, oily rags, and other flammable materials in approved safety cans and away from the home.
  • Follow all burning restrictions for your location.
  • Review your homeowner's insurance policy and keep an up-to-date list of your home's contents.
  • Annually review any recommendations from local authorities.

When a wildfire is reported in your area, you may or may not have time to prepare to evacuate. If you see a wildfire and haven't received evacuation orders, call 9-1-1. Don't assume that someone else has already called. Often there is more than one level of evacuation order. If there is time, you will be told to prepare to evacuate with the most urgent order being to GO NOW!

When any level of order is given, you should wear protective clothing when outside — sturdy shoes, cotton or woolen clothes, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, and a covering to protect your face. There is a good possibility you will need a respirator that filters out smoke or ash before you breathe it in.

If you have time:

  • Review your evacuation routes and load the car.
  • Arrange to stay at a friend or relative's home outside the threatened area.
  • Close outside attic eaves, basement vents, windows, doors, pet doors, etc. Remove flammable drapes and curtains.
  • Close all shutters, blinds, and heavy non-combustible window coverings.
  • Close all doors inside the house to prevent draft.
  • Open the damper on your fireplace but close the fireplace screen or door.
  • Shut off any natural gas, propane, oil, or fuel supplies at the source.
  • Set up water sprinklers around the perimeter of the home. Especially on the roof and near above-ground fuel tanks.
  • Keep a close eye on pets.
  • Place a ladder against the house in clear view to aid firefighters.
  • Turn on outside lights and leave a light on in every room to make the house more visible in heavy smoke.
  • You can place some valuables that will not be damaged by water in a pool or pond.
  • Always take care of your family and personal safety first.
  • If you are not able to evacuate, call 911, give your location, and explain your situation, including how many people are in the home and if anyone needs additional assistance.
  • Notify your family of where you are going and remind everyone of your prearranged rendezvous point(s).
  • Roll up car windows and close air vents when driving. Avoid driving through heavy smoke if possible. Drive slowly with headlights on. Be alert for other vehicles, pedestrians, and animals. If possible secure pets in carriers because they can be frightened by the smell of smoke. Wild animals will be fleeing the fire and are likely to run out in the road.
  • Do not return home until after authorities have said it is safe to do so.

Lorrie, you can never be too prepared for an emergency as severe as a wildfire. I hope these general guidelines help but you should always consider your personal circumstances and make appropriate plans. If your home gets damaged by a wildfire, or a house fire, be sure to contact a fire damage restoration company and your insurance provider.

Please add your comments.

Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to [email protected].

Photo by Nikolay Maslov on Unsplash

Brian Kline has been investing in real estate for more than 30 years and writing about real estate investing for seven years with articles listed on Yahoo Finance, Benzinga, and uRBN. Brian is a regular contributor at Realty Biz News
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