Wildfire Season Is Here! Here’s How to Protect Your Home

A National Guard Helicopter Works to Contain a WildFire. (Credit: National Guard Bureau)By Jason Van Steenwyk

It’s summertime. That means our coastal folks in Hawaii and the Southeast get to worry about hurricanes — and the rest of the country gets to worry about wildfire season.

Wildfires cause billions of dollars in damage, and destroy hundreds of homes every year. And this year may be a particularly dangerous year for wildfires — a mild winter is reducing the moisture coming off the mountains — there just isn’t as much snow to melt this year as in years prior. And a prolonged La Niña weather pattern is causing much dryer and hotter weather across the southern part of the United States — setting the stage for some very severe possible wildfires.

So what does this mean for homeowners? We spoke to Kevin Fuhriman, who heads the wildfire and disaster mitigation effort at the Chubb Group, a mid-size American home insurer that insures a lot of expensive homes in mountain and desert states like Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and Texas.

Yes, insurers are in a position to honor fire claims — if you have fire coverage. But they also expect you to “have some skin in the game,” according to Fuhriman. He explains “When there’s a big wildfire, there just aren’t enough fire engines to do a point structure defense on every house. So a lot of these houses are going to have to survive that fire on their own.”

Steps to Take

First, make sure your homeowners insurance is fully up-to-date, and that the policy covers the actual replacement value of the home. Many homeowners make the mistake of letting their policies atrophy for years, while the value of their home appreciates. That hasn’t been too much of an issue in recent years, as home prices have generally declined over the last four years. But as home prices recover, this is going to be a concern. Here’s a terrific video from the City of Boulder, Colorado — no stranger to wildfires — on how to ensure your coverage is up to date.

Next, conduct a property inventory. There are a number of web sites that can make this easy for you: Try www.knowyourstuff.org, www.stuffsafe.com, or www.lockboxer.com. Calculate the replacement value of everything in your home, take some pictures, and upload the information into one of these sites. Your inventory is then stored away from your home — so you won’t lose your home and your property inventory at the same time. This property inventory should go a long way to facilitating and streamlining the process should the worst happen, and we recommend it for everyone, whether you own or rent your home.

Check with your carrier to see if they have a wildfire mitigation program. Most do. Sign up for it. The insurance carriers frequently contract with fire defense professionals who will do a free walkthrough of your property and give you specific recommendations. You can find an overview of these kinds of mitigation programs here.

In the event of a fire, some programs will dispatch emergency response teams ahead of the projected path of the blaze to assist with last minute fire preparation measures, such as fireproof foam application to exposed areas.

But you have to sign up for the programs — they can’t enroll you automatically. Talk to your homeowners insurance agent for additional information.

Build a Moat Around Your Home

Your home is your castle. If you life in an area vulnerable to wildfires, it needs a moat to keep out invading fires. You don’t have to fill the moat with water and alligators, though… just designate an area of about 30 meters around the house, if you can, and strip it of fuel for a fire. Trim branches overhanging your house, for example. Clear brush away from the house. Trim back hedges and shrubberies. And keep the grass mowed short. High grass is like a race track for fire — leading right to your doorstep.

Remember to do the same thing for external fuel tanks. If you have a propane tank outside, keep hazards and combustibles away from the tank.

Fortify the House

Try to use tile or pitch and gravel roofs rather than wood, if you can. You can also get fire-resistant faux wood shakes that keep up the natural appearance of wood roofs without the flammability.

Replacing your roof can get pretty expensive, though. If you can’t do that, at least have your roof treated, along with any wooden decks and other exposed areas. Better yet, don’t have a wooden deck. Make your deck out of something less fire friendly.

Clear debris from under decks and under your house. Also, get up on a ladder regularly and clear out the dead leaves and other debris from your gutters.

Click here for a somewhat more detailed checklist. However, no checklist is any substitute for an in-person walkthrough with a trained fire defense expert. These professionals can take a close look at your construction techniques, materials, area hazards around your house, and give you specific, actionable advice on what you can do to mitigate the damage — and maximize the chances of your home and all your valuables surviving a wildfire event, even if the fire department can’t make it to your home.