Home insurance

Airborne embers ignite most homes lost to wildfire

Monday, May 16, 2016by  Jon Osterberg

airborn embers ignite wildfireOn Saturday I learned that most homes lost to wildfire typically ignite from airborne embers, not direct flames or radiant heat.

That was a key fact shared at Saturday's Wildfire Preparedness Day in Cle Elum, which I attended. If you live in what's called a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) – lands and communities adjacent to forests or wildland vegetation – this concerns you. WUIs inherently are at risk of wildfire.

"Embers are the leading cause of home ignitions," said Russ Hobbs, assistant chief of Kittitas County Fire District 7. "Embers typically shower the home, catching fine fuels such as leaves and dry grass under decks and in gutters and eaves."

PEMCO again is promoting Firewise practices, the act of preparing your home and property to resist wildfire. One of the keys is the importance of creating "defensible space." In short:

  • Zone 1 is the 30-foot perimeter around your home and structures that must be kept lean, clean, and green. No flammables.
  • Zone 2 extends 100 feet from your home, where reduced fuel is key -- mowed grass, no dead/dry vegetation, no "ladder fuel" (low tree branches).
  • Zone 3 extends beyond 100 feet. Trees should be thinned and all ladder fuels pruned.

embers ignite firesThe "aha!" lesson for me was learning that airborne embers from a mile away could burn down my cabin. That, and my cabin itself is not as prepared as I believed.

To keep airborne embers from settling on flammable spots, I need more than my metal roof and clean buffer zone. I need to enclose all open eaves and the roof above my deck with 1/8-inch wire mesh. And to be truly safe, I should replace my wood siding with something fire-resistant, like HardiePlank or HardieShingle fiber-cement board.

I've worked hard at Firewising my rural retreat. It sits on a slope in a wooded community where lots range from 5 to 20 acres – a WUI. I'm four miles from Cle Elum. Just above my property, large wooded tracts span hundreds of acres. Up until 1976, it was Plum Creek timberland.

I've removed more than 30 fir and pine trees within 200 feet of my cabin and pruned branches 12 to 15 feet up from the ground on the remaining trees. I've removed flammable bushes and gathered all dead branches from the ground well beyond my 100-foot perimeter. Thanks to a grant, a county crew came to my cabin for free last Friday and chipped 26 piles of branches I had stacked.

So why all this effort? If fire breaks out, there are no hydrants for firefighters. Kittitas County Fire District 7 would send a tanker truck and a brush truck with self-contained water. The tanker holds 3,500 gallons, the brush truck 600. The highest flow from the nozzle is 150 - 250 gallons per minute. Do the math, and you realize that's only between 16 and 27 minutes' worth of water.

So it's in my interest, and that of any WUI resident, to Firewise thoroughly. Firewising my property not only limits fuel, it improves access and safety for firefighters and boosts their chances of saving my cabin.

And it lessens the chance of my property igniting my neighbors' land.

Don't get burned! Learn more in our consumer tips.

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