Wildfires can be devastating to homes and life-threatening to inhabitants, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in both medical and rebuilding expenses. In 2021 alone, 58,968 wildfires ravaged 7.1 million acres across the country, with California being the state most at risk.
Living in an area prone to wildfires could have repercussions on home insurance and how you organize and furnish your home. Even if you don’t live in an area prone to wildfires, it pays to be informed of the most common causes and how to protect yourself, your loved ones and your property.
How Wildfires Get Started
Generally, 90% of wildfires are caused by humans, with 10% caused by lightning or lava. Human negligence typically causes fires — tiny sparks from unattended campfires, for instance, can ignite in areas with combustible materials. From there, the wind can carry embers from flames to spread the fire.
Wildfires can be caused by embers that escape from burning debris. Wind can carry embers for miles without extinguishing them, especially on windy days.
Discarding cigarettes and leaving campfires unattended can cost thousands of dollars in damage, as small embers can start a flame if it’s near combustible materials.
Unauthorized or illegal fire activities
Arson and other fire-related activities near combustible materials are another reason wildfires occur.
Lightning causes approximately 10% of wildfires. In particular, hot lightning, characterized by less voltage but occurring for a more extended period, causes most wildfires.
Electrical power lines
Fallen power lines or branches striking a power line can cause sparks that ignite wildfires.
How to Assess Your Fire Environment
Not all areas have an equal risk of wildfires. Locations with dry conditions and neighborhoods with houses in close proximity are more prone to wildfires. To determine an area’s level of risk when preparing to be a homeowner, take advantage of visual assessment tools, such as FEMA’s Fire Incidents for States and Counties, and consider evaluating the area where you live based on these three factors below.
Wildfire risk is greatly influenced by the weather. Moisture levels in the air, wind, fuels like fallen timber and temperature all play a role in causing wildfires.
Areas full of combustible materials, such as dog hair forests or those crawling with insects, can contribute to a wildfire spreading faster. That said, homeowners who live near forested areas are at a higher risk of suffering adverse effects from wildfires than those who do not.
Topography involves physical features of an area, such as slopes and the direction the area faces. In particular, fires burn more rapidly when they move up a hill because unburned fuels are heated up and become more combustible. A fire can also spread faster up slopes as the wind moves more rapidly.
Wildfire Hazard Potential Map
A wildfire hazard potential map can help you explore the likelihood of a fire in your area based on past data and other factors, such as the weather, topography of the area and more.
Select your state using the interactive tool below to find your level of risk. Areas in a darker shade have more reported fires than those in lighter shades.
The Devastating Costs and Effects of Wildfires
Wildfires can ravage forests and homes, hurting the environment and its inhabitants. Damages caused by wildfire can even impact the economy, as displaced individuals and the government alike will have to repair the area or move their sights elsewhere. For instance, the 2017 North Bay complex of wildfires caused a drop in employment and spike in unemployment claims in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Review the other effects that wildfires can cause to homeowners, the economy and the environment.
Affects your health
Wildfires spread a number of harmful emissions, such as particle pollution, carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxide and more. All these can be highly harmful to the lungs, even from a distance.
Harms the soil
Large burning logs on the forest floor radiate heat upward and downward, ultimately damaging soil microbes. Soil nutrients can be significantly reduced, which decreases the likelihood of the area being healthy enough to heal quickly.
Impacts water quality
Aside from the impact on air quality, water quality, including drinking water, can be affected by ash and smoke from wildfires. Wildfire victims can suffer on a physical, chemical and biological level for decades.
Causes property loss
If a fire reaches one home, it risks the entire neighborhood. Case in point, the Camp Fire in California caused an estimated $7.44 billion in property losses.
Wildfires can decrease the likelihood of tourism, primarily if it occurs near areas that often receive visitors. For instance, tourists may avoid certain parks if smoke is still present. In turn, this can even affect hospitality, restaurants and other industries.
Preparing for a Wildfire
While no one can predict when a wildfire will strike, it pays to have an emergency plan in place. This can involve meeting at a designated area, having an emergency bag ready and potentially evacuating. Preparing your finances for an emergency can also help you get back on your feet if the worst happens.
Develop an emergency plan
Create an agreed-upon emergency plan with your family members or housemates. This involves knowing where to meet if you are separated, memorizing contact information and setting roles. Make sure your plan includes your pets.
Have essentials ready
Have an “emergency” bag with all your essentials, including food and water for at least three days, medicines, whistles, a first-aid kit, flashlights and other necessities. This way, you can grab it and go if the situation is dire.
Prepare a financial emergency kit
Do not forget your finances in the fray. To recover from a wildfire damaging your home, make sure to have all your important documents in one place, including the deed to your home and insurance policy. It’s also best to ensure electronic copies are stored in the cloud.
Disaster-proof your home
The best way to ensure you are prepared is to disaster-proof your home. For wildfires, this entails cleaning the roof and gutters of your home regularly, ensuring your smoke alarms work and having fire extinguishers on every floor.
How to Reduce Wildfire Risks on Your Home
Investing in fire prevention is the best way to avoid injuries and property destruction. It can be as simple as regularly removing combustible materials, such as dead leaves, or as drastic as having fire-resistant landscaping. When you take a proactive approach to prevent wildfires, you can significantly increase the chances of your home surviving a catastrophic event.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating an Effective Defensible Space
If you live in an area prone to wildfires, it’s possible to protect your home against it using defensive strategies, for instance, strategically arranging plants or increasing moisture in vegetation. However, before making any moves, it’s important to make a plan and identify hazards to your home. After this analysis, you can follow the three R’s of a defensive space: removal, reduction and replacement.
Review the steps below to see how you can start protecting your home against the risk of wildfires.
Establish a 100-foot outer zone
A defensible area consists of your home and everything in a 100-foot radius. Radiant heat can cause your home to ignite from 100 feet away, and nearby combustible materials can transport flames to your house.
Remove hazardous plants
Within your 100-foot outer zone, make sure that all dead plants and tree branches are removed. Remove all hazardous plants within five feet of your home and use non-flammable mulch products.
Reduce at-risk plants
Prune branches or leaves that are dead or low to the ground. You can also maintain your plants in well-spaced clusters and ensure your trees have a certain distance between each other from the top down.
Replace plants with less flammable alternatives
Replacement follows removal and reduction, where you substitute dry plants for less-flammable options. For instance, this can include removing dry shrubs and replacing them with a well-maintained flowerbed with a good irrigation system.
Maintain plants properly
Maintenance is the key to ensuring your home is safe. Ensure your plants are well-irrigated and all shrubs and trees are regularly pruned to remove dead parts. Plant only low-growing, irrigated plants within ten feet of buildings.
Ways to Hardening Your Home: A Home Ignition Zone Checklist
Creating defensible space also involves hardening your home from advancing fires. Wildfire embers may find the weak link in your home's fire protection system and gain the upper hand. It’s important to think of fire defense across every part of your home, reducing the chance of ignition even in the face of direct flame.
Part of Your Home
What Needs to Be Done?
Maintain your roof and gutters by clearing any flammable vegetation. You can also prevent birds and rodents from building flammable nests by plugging in openings between your ridges and edges of a roof. If you live in a fire-prone area, you may want to opt for a fire-resistant roof.
Vents can create openings for embers, igniting combustible materials in your home. To prevent this, cover your vent openings with a 1/8-inch or 1/16-inch wire mesh.
If you live in an older home, you may want to replace your windows with dual-pane, tempered glass. These can protect your home from any flames and wind-blown embers.
Decks or porches
Keep your deck free of combustible materials where possible. Move any propane tanks for grills away, and do not store anything flammable underneath. If your deck is made of combustible materials, you may want to replace them if you live in a wildfire-prone area.
Garages and driveways
Protect your garage door from embers by installing weather stripping around and under it. You can also protect your driveways by ensuring vegetation has at least ten feet of clearance on either side.
The Importance of Knowing What Your Homeowner Insurance Covers
In wildfire-prone areas, homeowner insurance policies are especially important because wildfires can quickly destroy property. The average homeowner insurance policy can cover the costs of repairing your home, replacing burned belongings and paying for a hotel during the reconstruction. However, not all providers offer equal coverage, so reviewing your policy is vital to see what is and isn’t covered.
What You Will Need to Do When a Wildfire Approaches
Dealing with a wildfire can be stressful and overwhelming, but knowing what to do can help ensure you and your loved ones remain safe. Here are some steps you can take if you have time to act and the fire is far enough away not to threaten your safety.
Listen to local alert systems or news to remain updated on the intensity and whereabouts of the wildfire.
Move outdoor furniture and other combustibles away from your home
If you have outdoor furniture or potted plants, place them in an area far away from your home.
Prepare an emergency kit
Make an emergency kit full of essentials and important documents.
Have water supply on standby
Fill buckets, basins, pools and other containers with water to assist firefighters if called to your property.
If authorities request evacuation from your neighborhood or area, do so immediately. Items can be replaced by your home insurance — prioritize your safety.
Activities You Must Avoid to Prevent Wildfires
Wildfires are often caused by humans — whether through negligence or an accident. If you live in an area surrounded by forests or combustible materials, avoiding activities that could cause wildfires is the best practice.
Extinguish fires properly
If you are done with your fire, make sure to extinguish it entirely and do not give it any more chance to burn. Use water or ash to put it out.
Avoid burning trash
Burning trash is not only bad for you and the environment but can also pose a severe risk if not put out properly. Avoid it altogether and opt to recycle or get rid of your trash another way.
Don’t light fireworks near any woods
Fireworks can be a serious hazard and cause wildfires. Make sure to avoid lighting any fireworks near areas with combustible materials, such as forests.
Don’t throw lit cigarettes
Lit cigarettes can roll to different places. They can ignite and grow unexpectedly if they make contact with combustible material. Ensure you put your cigarettes out properly and throw them away in a garbage can.
Report unattended fires
If you observe a fire that is out of control or unattended while you are out and about, you should contact 911 or your local fire department immediately. Depending on the conditions, a small campfire can quickly turn into a massive blaze.
Expert Insights on Keeping Your Home Safe During Wildfires
MoneyGeek gathered insights from experts on how homeowners can better protect their homes against wildfires.
- What are some ways that homeowners can protect their homes against wildfires?
- What contingency plans or purchases should a homeowner make to ensure their home is protected?
Broker & CEO at Wyse Home Team Realty
Founder of We Love Land
Insurance Agent at Texas General Insurance
Resources for Wildfire Prevention
In case you suffer from a wildfire or want to prevent it, there are many resources available to help.
- Americares: Americares has previously provided cash assistance to wildfire victims. Aside from cash assistance, they also help with temporary housing in hotels to provide a semblance of stability.
- American Red Cross: A nonprofit organization that is dedicated to helping impacted individuals with their emergency needs.
- Center for Disaster Philanthropy: The Center for Disaster Philanthropy works to fight wildfires in prone areas, offering to help with the removal of trees and plants to prevent landslides and more.
- Forests and Rangelands: This website provides information about fire, fuel and land management.
- Fire Safe Marin: Learn how to harden your home through Fire Safe Marin’s guide. It covers small, easy steps for keeping your home safe.
- Lutheran Disaster Response: The mission of Lutheran Disaster Response is to offer hope, healing and renewal to people whose lives have been affected by disasters throughout the U.S. and worldwide.
- National Forest Foundation: The National Forest Foundation orients American communities and mobilizes the public to benefit from the 193-million-acre National Forest System.
- Ready For Wildfire: A nonprofit organization dedicated to helping prevent the spread of wildfire accidents. It offers text messages informing you of occurrences and plans and tips to prepare for the worst.
- Soil and Water Conservation Districts: After a wildfire or natural disaster, your local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) may be able to assist you.
- The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC): The NIFC serves as the country's national firefighting support center. The National Interagency Fire Center website provides information about fires across the country, contracting, maps, news and a daily situation report.
- United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR): As a nonprofit organization, UMCOR provides humanitarian relief and disaster relief to communities in the U.S. and abroad that are affected by a crisis or chronically in need.
About Nathan Paulus
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- Teton County, Wyoming. "Risk Factors Associated with Wildfires." Accessed June 8, 2022.
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