Friday, May 13, 2011

Wildfire Season Approaches. Act Now.

by Frank Graham, Owner of Graham Insurance Agency

You might think it is impossible to encounter a wildfire and have your house "live through it". But it is possible to improve fire prevention against this all too common western United States disasaster. From Oklahoma to California, a dry season, coupled with some wind, and a tiny spark in the wrong place, will make havoc on many families this year.

Here are some of the basics:
  • Create a defensible space. Clear away the risks.
  • Mesh all vents properly.
  • Know your family escape route.
  • Keep gutters clean.
  • Upgrade your roofing material to Class "A".
  • Have an emergency kit and family plan in case of fire.
  • Decks should be made of flame retardant material.
There are some relatively low cost measures you can take to help prevent damage from a wildfire. First off, establish a fire prevention (or defensible) zone around your home. Begin with 30 feet, replacing highly flammable vegetation and items, with lower or non flamable ones. If you live in, or near, a forest, extend your zone to 100 feet, if you are the top of a hill, extend it even further. Fire travels rapidly up hills. Any dead vegetation, clear away. Your barrier to a large fire can include a stone wall, a swimming pool, or a pond, but it doesn't stop there.

The most at risk item for wildfire on your house is your roof. It is a large, relatively flat space that has traditionally been the starting place for many large fires that begin externally. Keep debris off your roof and cut tree limbs back. Check your roofing materials and if you're not already there, upgrade to Class A roofing materials, if at all possible. It may be required by code where you live, but even if it isn't, it's a good measure to take to help resist those flames. You may also choose to have an external water supply, such as a well, a pool, or pond.

Dead leaves and vegetation invite fire into your area. Keep your chimney area clear of limbs or debris, just as you would in winter. It is the flammable material outside that brings it in. Remove any vines. Cut the lawn on a regular basis and keep the lawn well irrigated.

If you have a choice of construction materials at this point, go with stone, brick, or stucco. Flame retardant shingles may also prove effective deterrant. Well screened vents and airways help keep out embers, meshed or sealed as best possible. Screening your vents is a catch 22: you need to be certain to use smaller size mesh to prevent fire material from entering the house -- but flammable material can accumulate around or under those mesh areas too. Use flame retardant material to block those sources of fire entry into the house when a fire is on it's way. Check vents at least a couple times a year, and especially before fire season so you reduce the chance of a fire entering the house that way.

Large windows offer a beautiful view, but they also pose a higher risk for wildfire entry. Go with multipane windows if you want to go big. Dual pane tempered glass is always better for your windows, when considering fire safety, anyway.

Any wood material is more prone to catch fire -  fences, gutters, rails, sheds, and anything else that might help spread fire to your home is something to be aware of and protect against. Your homeowners policy will address these issues as well as your home. However, be certain that the separate structures section of your policy adequately covers these items.

Decks present unique problems. Thicker wood slats are, generally, better in a fire. Fire from decks can heat windows to the point of breakage, spreading the fire by embers, into the interior of a house. Consider plastic, fire resistant, or wood-plastic composite materials. There are also some fire retardant treated woods you may decide to go with.

Finally, you and your family should have a plan in case of this and other emergencies. Always have an emergency kit with essential items to live and deal with what may come your way. You and your family should take care to know the escape routes. Store flame resistant materials to be able to use quickly - and install them if and when you are up against a wildfire. If fire approaches, you will need to turn off the main gas line, put sprinklers on the roof letting them soak, and exit the area knowing you took every measure you could.

Check with your agent to see exactly what your policy would cover in the case of a wildfire. A disaster such as a fire does not need to be nearly as traumatic as it can be if your financial picture is protected appropriately.

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