With more than 58,000 wildfires in the United States last year, the threat of watching the home and life they’ve built for themselves and their families go up in flames is a very real one for many homeowners.
Both science and experience confirm that as the earth gets warmer, the frequency of these natural disasters will continue to increase. The truth of the matter is that even the most soundly-constructed, stick-built homes are not designed to withstand the heat.
So, while some experts are focusing on long-term solutions, like combating climate change, others are looking for ways to make an immediate impact, like fireproofing homes. Engineers, contractors, and homeowners alike are building, rebuilding, and retrofitting homes with wildfires in mind, incorporating features that will withstand the flames.
If you live in an area prone to wildfires, this guide is for you. Step by step and room by room, we’re going to walk through the features that make a home fireproof and how to incorporate them into your own house.
Site & Landscape
Protecting your home from fires begins with a thoughtfully-planned site layout. It will also mean that embers have further to travel before they impact your structure. A minimum of 100 feet of patio, driveway, or fire-retardant hardscaping should separate your house from any wooded area.
Metal fencing around your property, as opposed to wood or composite, will not keep a fire at bay, but it won’t serve as kindling, either. Beds lined with rock can add visual appeal, but choose foliage with care. High-moisture plants that grow low to the ground and produce little to no sap are your best bet. Think lavender, aloe, or ice plant. Additionally, large driveways with convenient turn-arounds will also make it easier for firefighters to access your home.
By creating a literal barrier between your home and the fire, the flames should stay further from the structure as they burn. Whether you are building or renovating, consult with a landscape architect to design a fire-friendly outdoor layout.
If wildfire flames do reach your home, keeping them on the outside gives your structure a better chance of survival. Luckily, there are a host of materials you can use that are both beautiful and functional. An exterior made of stucco, brick, tile, adobe, concrete block, or metal siding will resist fire without compromising your sense of style.
In addition to choosing the right materials, paying attention to the structure of your home will also improve its fire resistance. The underside of roof soffits, balconies, and decks naturally trap flames, allowing temperatures to skyrocket. Therefore, they need extra reinforcement to ensure structural integrity. To achieve this, consider adding a firewall and building decks, balconies, railings, and stairwells from fire-resistant materials, such as steel or ipe hardwood.
Another area of the home where you risk allowing the fire to enter are louvers and vents. Attics, crawl spaces, kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms all have holes leading from the inside to the outside. In addition to the usual metal wire screens and back-draft dampers, add fire dampers with fusible links that close automatically.
Class A roofing materials include concrete and clay tiles, fiberglass or asphalt shingles, and metal roof panels, and they are the standard for fire resistance because they are the least flammable. By definition, these materials will not allow a flame to spread more than six feet, and can withstand a piece of burning material as large as one square foot and weighing up to 2,000 grams. Moreover, they can last between two and four hours before they ignite, including 15 cycles of a gas flame turning off and on.
If you want to step up your home’s protection from fire even further, you have options. First, line your roof with a fire-resistant cap sheet. Then, ensure your tiles interlock tightly to eliminate cracks. Finally, eliminate roof vents and overhangs wherever possible. Otherwise, openings between roofing tiles allow embers into your attic. Once inside, the fire will feed on the wood and insulation and spread to the rest of your home.
Windows are naturally weak when it comes to resisting heat and flames. In fact, heat that radiates through your windows can cause combustible materials inside your home to ignite before the flames even reach the indoors. Fire-rated glass or tempered glass with double glazing is a better option than single glazing, but your absolute best bet is automated, metal fire doors. Built into roof overhangs, a heat-activated, fusible link triggers their release, which roll down to cover windows and glass doors.
A fireproof home is only as good as its exterior doors. Solid core wood doors only provide about 20 minutes of fire protection. A metal core door, on the other hand, will provide extra protection and can be faced with any material. For even more protection, replace your wooden door jamb with a metal one as well.
Garage doors are another problem area. A plastic or wooden garage door will burn quickly, allowing the fire virtually unlimited access to your home’s interior. Contracting a garage door pro to install a metal panel door will provide more protection, but that’s not enough. You should also add a tight-fitting, fusible-link closure to prevent the wind from allowing embers under the door.
While incorporating fire-retardant materials and design into the fabric of your home will vastly improve the structure’s ability to fend off heat and flames from a wildfire, investing in special features like sprinkler systems and back-up power can be the difference between your house’s survival or detriment. Sprinkler systems on the exterior of your home — the roof, patio, deck, and ground — can turn themselves on automatically in the event of a fire. Again, fusible links are your best friend here. Hire a fire prevention and protection pro to design and place the system strategically so that it can put out spot fires. A portable generator will ensure your sprinkler system, as well as any associated pumps or lights, continues to operate in the event you lose power.
In reality, there is no such thing as a home that is completely and totally fireproof. However, by investing in and incorporating the right materials, design features, and fire prevention systems into your structure, you can better protect your home, as well as the memories and mementos inside.