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How to best protect your home against wildfires (Q&A)

On Aug. 17, 2013, a wildfire broke out in California's Stanislaus National Forest north of the Tuolumne River. Since then, the Rim fire has consumed more than 250,000 acres -- or almost 400 square miles -- including significant swaths of land in and around Yosemite National Park. What's more, the Los Angeles Times reports the blaze destroyed more than 100 buildings, including 31 homes and three businesses, making it the third largest wildfire in California history.

The Rim fire again raised national awareness of the threat wildfires pose to both natural landscapes and residential homes. recently caught up with Stephen Quarles, senior scientist and wildfire expert for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, to discuss the threat that wildfires pose and tips for homeowners looking to protect themselves from potential devastation.

How to best protect your home against wildfires (Q&A)  wildfires

The term "wildfire" gets used a lot, but how would you actually define it?

In short, it's any fire burning on the natural landscape. The term wildfire tends to be reserved for fires that are unexpected and aren't prescribed or controlled burns, which are sometimes used as a form of forest management.

To be considered a wildfire, does it have to grow to a certain size?

No. They can be small to large. Most wildfires, in fact, stay small and most people never hear about them. When they make the news, however, it's because either they get really big or they are burning in a place where people notice it. So the fire that burned into Yosemite National Park started getting a lot of attention when it started threatening the national park and nearby homes.

What are some of the most common causes of wildfires?

Lightning or humans usually cause them. Human causes can either be accidental or the result of arson. Accidental fires might start from a neglected campfire, a discarded cigarette that's still burning or even driving down the road and some metal hanging from your vehicle creates sparks that start a fire near the roadside. Arson, on the other hand, is intentional.

Why are wildfires so hard to put out?

Typically, it's because of two reasons. One is the location of the fire. They usually burn in remote wilderness areas where access is not very convenient and the terrain is steep. So it's hard to get firefighters into the area. And even though you may have air equipment like helicopters dropping water or planes dropping fire retardants, this is most effective in conjunction with people on the ground.

And often, when you have a really big fire, you have a weather event producing high winds that exacerbate the blaze. For instance, the Santa Ana and Diablo winds in California have been devastating on several occasions. Once the winds stop or turn around, it then becomes much easier to control the fire.

In what areas of the country are wildfires most common?

They happen in almost all parts of the country, but typically the larger fires are in the west. Year after year we see fires making the news in states like Texas, Colorado, California, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest -- certain parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. And that's primarily because of the terrain, the arid climate, and the vegetation, which is often dense and very combustible.

What, if anything, can homeowners do to protect their homes from wildfires?

There are definitely things homeowners can do, and the survival of their homes will depend on a combination of things they do on their property. One thing they can do is concentrate on vegetation management and creating defensible space around the house. There are pretty defined rules for defensible space and usually it calls for a three-zone approach.

The first zone is within five feet of the house and is known as the noncombustible zone. The objective in this zone is to prevent flames from making direct contact with the house. Pay attention to the types of vegetation and mulch you select for this area. Whatever types of plants you chose for this zone must be carefully maintained. You can also reduce the chances of a ground fire in this zone by selecting products like noncombustible mulches, including rock, gravel and noncombustible hardscape features like brick and concrete walkways.

The second zone is a buffer of about 30 feet that helps reduce the intensity of a wildfire. This includes reducing the amount of radiant heat that could impact your home and the nearby generation of embers. That means homeowners should thin vegetation and make sure trees are not too close together. This helps make sure vegetation won't provide a direct path for the wildfire flames to approach your home. You should also remove wood structures, boats, trailers and anything else containing combustible materials from this zone.

The third zone is about 30 to 100 feet from your home. You should make sure this zone doesn't have any dead plant material or branches lying around. You should also thin out trees to reduce the chances of fire jumping from one tree to the next.

Finally, homeowners should also make sure they keep the house itself free of debris. This includes cleaning out the gutters, making sure the roof is free of dead leaves and pine needles, and not storing combustible materials like firewood or gasoline near the house.

What role does home insurance play when it comes to wildfires? And for folks who live in wildfire-prone areas, is there special coverage they should look into?

The best advice I have is that people should talk to their insurance agents and make sure they are adequately insured. There is no "special coverage" for wildfires, but the key is making sure you have enough insurance to cover the risk. If you live in a wildfire-prone area of the country, your agent or insurance company will know a great deal about how much insurance you should have for your home and maybe some tips to help reduce wildfire risk.

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