How do I protect my property against wildfire?
“Defensible space” is a term that’s become commonplace with the increased risk of wildfires. It refers to a buffer zone of landscaping around a structure to give it the best shot at not catching fire.
The recommendations regarding defensible space are based on data showing they can or might help. They also might not. All fires are different.
But most emergency planners feel strongly that you should do all you can to make your property more defensible, even with the unknown.
To help visualize defensible space, imagine embers carried through the air by the heat of fire and winds. The goal is to protect your home and yard from catching fire from a flying ember, or from surging flames.
This means removing or limiting as much flammable or combustible vegetation and other materials from around your house as possible. Trimming back plants and trees, mowing grasses and weeds, keeping combustibles off of and away from your house and creating space around plants, trees and backyard equipment like grills.
CalFire sets the gold standard of defensible space. Local jurisdictions — including Oakland — base their own regulations on the CalFire model.
The CalFire model uses zones around a house: an “ember-resistant” zone extending five feet from the structure, called Zone 0; a wider inner zone extending 30 feet out, Zone 1; and an outer zone, extending from 30 feet to 100 feet, Zone 2.
Zone 0 is law, but not yet enforced as the details are still being decided by the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, charged with the task. But fire experts, including those in Berkeley, are encouraging property owners to follow the CalFire guidelines for Zone 0 now, or at least to get started.
This is the area closest to any structure and should be “hardscaped” with gravel, rocks, concrete, or any material that can’t ignite. No woody mulch and well-spaced, well-maintained, low-growing, fire-resistant plants. The law is expected to prohibit wood fences or gates from touching a house or structure, requiring at least 5 feet of open space from a wood fence to a house, or noncombustible fencing such as metal.
CalFire includes decks and roofs in Zone 0, calling for removing vegetative debris such as leaves and needles, limiting combustible patio furniture or planters, and avoiding storing garbage and recycling bins or RVs or trailers in this area.
Zone 1 standards call for smaller, thinner, and lower vegetation to prevent sparks from flying to your house.
Zone 2 allows for some taller trees and bushes, trimmed to minimize risks from flames and flying embers. The closer to the house, the more space between bushes and trees. Look for horizontal as well as vertical spacing, so upper branches are spaced apart.
Fire-resistant landscaping is strongly encouraged.
- Clearing dead plant materials and dry vegetation.
- Removing combustibles such as dry leaves and pine needles from the roof.
- Removing ladder fuels that let fire climb from the ground to trees.
- Removing lower tree branches at least 10 feet from the ground.
- Removing shrubs or brush from under trees.
- Cutting grass and weeds to a maximum of 4 inches tall.
- Trimming vegetation near utility lines.
- Clearing brush and trees 10 feet back from roadways and ensuring fire access roads are not obstructed.
- Trimming trees for 10 feet of clearance from other trees and from your chimney.
- Removing dead branches that hang over your house.
- Keeping wood, brooms, propane BBQs, garbage cans and flammable patio furniture at least 10 feet from the house. Firewood should be at least 30 feet from your house.
- Making sure your address sign is visible from the street day and night, in a contrasting color to your home.
- Removing flammable plants and shrubs from windows, and from under or near decks.
- Installing heavy wire mesh spark arrestors on chimney openings.
- Also checking that you have spark arrestors on your weed wacker, lawn mower, propane BBQ and all other appliances using solid or liquid fuel.
Maintaining your yard is not just about saving your home. It’s also about saving neighborhoods. Every burning building is fuel for a fire, making it hotter and stronger. Making property more fire-resistant can minimize this effect. The more you clear space in high-risk fire zones, the better your chances of slowing a fire.
Many properties don’t have 100 feet of space around structures – the area covered by the state’s defensible space regulation. Clear space to your property line, and work with your neighbors.
Do defensible space regulations apply to my property?
Defensible space is required by state law in designated high-risk fire zones and is enforced by local fire agencies, such as the Oakland Fire Department. Property owners can face fines and a misdemeanor conviction if they fail to comply after repeated notifications. Local agencies can also create stricter regulations than state authorities.
Under local enforcement, yards are usually inspected in the spring, at the start of spring, and through the summer.
First, learn your property’s wildland fire risk on CalFire’s interactive fire risk map. It shows each address’ fire risk zone.
Oakland’s vegetation management requirements apply in those areas of the city identified by the state as being in a very high fire hazard severity zone.
Check the city’s Wildfire District Inspection webpage for details on what requirements apply in this zone. You can also get details from the city’s wildfire prevention unit at 510-238-7388 or by email at email@example.com.
What does it mean to ‘harden’ your home against fire?
Along with “defensible space,” “home hardening,” once a rare term, is now finding its way to the common lingo of wildfire prevention.
Home hardening is the act of preparing your house against fire by choices in materials, construction and design. This includes replacing flammable materials with fire-retardant or noncombustible options, protecting against embers and removing fire hazards.
The concepts of home hardening and defensible space overlap to cover practices that can reduce wildfire damage to your entire property, the structures and the land.
Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to stopping fire, but research shows that home hardening steps can make a difference.
Flying embers and intense radiant heat pose the greatest dangers to buildings during wildfires. Wood — such as siding, shingles, roofs or decks — are kindling to embers and fuel for flames. The same goes for flammable vegetation. Intense radiant heat can cause combustible materials to burst into flames.
The science of home hardening, the development of new materials and techniques to resist fire, is a fast-moving field. California’s recent large-scale fires are serving to some extent as laboratories for what works best.
As of now in the East Bay, most home hardening is optional, not required. Though in high wildland fire risk zones, creating defensible space is the law. However, the California Fire Marshall sets codes for home hardening materials and practices. Using these methods must meet codes.
Two California entities have published guides to home hardening:
Home hardening basics include:
- Replacing all wood materials — such as roofs, siding and decks, fences, and gates — with fire-retardant or noncombustible options: composite, cement, metal, clay, tile, fire-treated wood.
- Do this for fences, gates and arbors especially where they are closest to your or a neighbor’s house. Consider first responder access when building or designing fencing of any material.
- Covering all chimneys and vents leading into the home with wire mesh to catch embers. Embers entering a house through vents into attics, basements, crawl spaces or walls are a major cause of wildfire spread to structures. Look for gaps in eaves, and plug them with wire mesh or noncombustible caulking.
- Clearing under and around your decks to create an ember-resistant area of dirt, stones, slate, pebbles or cement.
- Sealing openings in your garage with weather stripping or wire mesh to prevent embers from entering.
- Inspecting/cleaning your chimney yearly.
- Installing dual-paned glass windows with one pane of tempered glass to help lower radiant heat and prevent explosions, and using metal window screens instead of plastic or other flammable/meltable material.
- Leaving your garage open on Red Flag days and having a backup power source if your garage door operates on electricity.
- Having several garden hoses in place that are long enough to reach all areas of your yard, to help with spot fires or embers on the ground. (Do not leave your water running if you evacuate. Save the water for the firefighters.)
- Keeping a small supply of tools handy to help put out small fires, including a fire extinguisher, shovel and rake.
Other things to consider are replacing wooden furniture with fire-resistant materials. Wooden furniture, BBQ grills, propane tanks and garbage and recycling bins should not be stored near your home’s exterior.
What help is available if I can’t afford the high costs of fire prevention?
Fire prevention can be expensive. Even if you mow, weed, and trim bushes on your own, most people need to hire out for heavy work, such as removing or trimming trees.
Some of the work is required, while some is strongly recommended.
Oakland’s vegetation management requirements include creating 30 feet of defensible space around your home and things like covering house vents with wire mesh to prevent embers from entering your home.
And some of the work needs to be done or maintained every year. This is easier for some people to manage financially than others.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of assistance available.
Oakland has a free chipper program to grind tree limbs and brush in high fire risk zones and haul away chippings. For details:
- Oakland Chipper Program or call 510-238-7388
The Diablo Firesafe Council, a nonprofit serving Alameda and Contra Costa counties, offers matching grants of up to $5,000 for vegetation clearance in residential areas of the East Bay hills and in the highest risk fire zones. Applications are reviewed on a quarterly basis with the next deadline being Aug. 13. Cheryl Miller, the council’s executive coordinator, says they currently have a wait list for projects and they hope to hear soon if they get additional funding for the next few years. More details are available on the council’s website or by calling 510-282-1265.
PG&E has also produced a seven-part video series called “7 Saturdays” with tips about how homeowners can protect their properties against wildfires.
I rent. What should I know about wildfire safety?
For renters, most of the same advice on wildfire preparation applies to you, such as preparing a go bag, signing up for emergency alerts, and having an evacuation plan. You should know if you live in a very high fire hazard severity zone and you should know your Zonehaven evacuation zone.
The responsibility of renters generally stops with the physical property, the house or building and the yard. Your landlord or the property owner is responsible for making sure the building meets building codes, including fire codes and for defensible space requirements related to yard maintenance.
State and local laws require rental properties to have smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and openable window bars. Larger buildings may require sprinkler systems and alarm systems.
If you rent in a very high fire hazard severity zone, have conversations with your landlord now about preparedness including:
- Concerns over yard conditions or vegetation. Ask if wildfire prevention requirements are being met.
- Seek reassurance and/or proof that fire codes are met, including the availability of fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, and that all window bars can be opened in an emergency.
- In larger apartment buildings, fire inspections are conducted routinely and results must be posted on a public interior wall. This can include surprise inspections.
If you feel your landlord isn’t meeting fire safety regulations or isn’t sharing information with you, contact your fire or emergency services department.
- Oakland Wildfire Inspections, or 510-238-7388
- Oakland Emergency Management Services, or 510-238-3938
The Oakland Rent Board is an important resource for tenants and landlords. It can provide detailed information on fire code requirements for everything from a rental house to a multi-unit apartment complex.
Disaster advice for renters
The horrific wildfires in Northern California brought attention to how renters can be impacted, including losing all their belongings in a blaze and then experiencing homelessness. Many were left with nothing but bank accounts, if they had them, and reliance on family and friends.
Unlike property owners, rebuilding or dealing with homeowner’s insurance wasn’t relevant.
One good to come of this tragedy was disaster advice just for renters. Some of these efforts are still active today, and excellent resources for tenants. Including:
- Bay Area Legal Aid Disaster Relief, or 1-888-382-3406
- Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative (DLAC)
The drought is over. Can I keep my house or yard sprayed down? (Caution!)
On hot days, many people living in high-risk areas of the East Bay hills like to water their yards often to keep their plants and grounds moist and damp, as a deterrent to flying embers or flames. Some also regularly hose down their wood decks and fences.
But does this even help and, even though we’re out of the drought, does it waste water?
With today’s increasingly unpredictable weather, going from water minimalist to water hog isn’t wise, most experts say. Be mindful that water isn’t a 365 days-per-year renewable resource.
Pam Temmermand, a fire prevention specialist at CalFire, offered this drought advice to those living in very high fire hazard severity zones.
- As a rule, anyone in wildfire country should landscape with drought-tolerant, fire-resistant plants. Don’t plant water hogs. And remember to remove all dead and dying vegetation.
- During any major fire, or during a drought, water is precious and should be saved for firefighting
- In the face of a fire, hosing a yard or anything else won’t help much. The hot dry winds associated with advancing wildfires result in rapid evaporation long before flames and embers reach a home.
- Maintaining defensible space around all structures is CalFire’s best advice for helping protect a home from wildfire
I have fire insurance — for now. What do I need to know?
With several major insurance companies pulling out from homeowner coverage in California, and citing wildfire risk as a major reason for the move, the state is experiencing an insurance crisis. Increasing numbers of homeowners, including in Berkeley and Oakland, face nonrenewals and a shrinking market of companies are willing to take on a house in a wildfire zone.
Inflation and the high cost of construction are other reasons insurers say they can’t afford to keep covering homes in the state. Money in from premiums can’t cover the costs of paying for damages, is the way the industry sums it up.
The California Department of Insurance is looking at regulatory changes that might help insurance companies keep covering homes in the state. Consumer advocates want to make sure regulatory changes won’t result in unfair, nontransparent billing or costs.
Having adequate coverage in an area with high wildfire risk is vital. Thousands of homes were destroyed in recent California fires, with many people discovering they didn’t have enough coverage.
The cost of insurance – if you can get it – is challenging or prohibitive for some family budgets. The headache of finding adequate coverage is hard on most people affected.
Can anything help?
Start by reviewing the information and services of United Policy Holders, an customer advocacy nonprofit that is leading efforts to help people deal with insurance nightmares.
Insurance companies have to give you a 75- day -notice of cancellation under state law. It might take this long to get a new policy, so try not to procrastinate.
Ask your former broker for suggestions, including whether additional wildfire prevention work might help keep your coverage. Talk to neighbors in the same fire risk zone. If your insurance company didn’t give you a 75-day notice before cancellation, or if you don’t understand why you were dropped, contact the California Department of Insurance at 800-927-HELP.
If you’re a homeowner in the hills, here are a few things you can do:
- Check what your homeowner’s insurance covers and make sure it’s enough to help you rebuild if needed, taking into account updated square footage, improvements and current building costs (from a contractor). Your insurance broker should be able to help with this.
- Aim for replacement coverage, versus cash value, which won’t pay you the actual costs of rebuilding and replacing, just depreciated value
- Update your inventory of belongings and valuables, taking photos and videos inside your home
- To save money, get a higher deductible, not less coverage
- Make sure all of your valuables are covered for replacement, such as antiques and artwork
- Never let your coverage lapse because it opens a window when many companies cancel or refuse to renew
- Consider including “living expense coverage” to cover the time it takes for rebuilding
- If you’re a renter, get renter’s insurance with fire coverage
- Consider forming or joining a community wildfire prevention group such as a Firewise Community, a program of the National Fire Protection Association. Some insurers take this into consideration for coverage and rate decisions. Being part of a community or neighborhood prevention program is also one of a set of prevention requirements for lowering homeowner insurance rates under a new state law.
- To be eligible for lower rates under the new law, several prevention steps (called Safer from Wildfire) must be completed
- Talk with your broker about these prevention insurance incentives
Failsafe fire insurance
California law guarantees that basic home fire insurance is available to any homeowner who can’t get conventional coverage under the California Fair Plan. It was intended as short-term gap coverage but is increasingly becoming the only coverage available for homeowners in wildfire-risk areas.
But it isn’t free or low-cost. The plan is essentially a pool of high-risk private insurers available to homeowners as a last resort. It is considered a temporary safety net until regular coverage is attained.
The California Fair Plan also only covers fire-related damage. Property owners usually augment this with a separate homeowners policy to cover the rest.
Here are a few more helpful resources: