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From fire-resistant plants to creating defensible space, how to prepare your home

 

By Marie Tae McDermott and Giulia Heyward

© The New York Times Co.

Residents of the Western United States have been warned to prepare themselves and their homes for another punishing wildfire season.

A widespread drought has dried out the vegetation and land in several states, priming the region for increased wildfire activity, which typically begins in the summer and can continue into the fall.

“If your home is near a wildfire area, you should be concerned,” said Lynnette Round, a public information officer at Cal Fire, the firefighting agency in California, where 9,248 structures were destroyed by wildfires in 2020. “Wildfires can ignite at any moment, so residents need to be prepared now, ahead of time.”

Here’s a guide to making your home more resistant to wildfires:

• By creating a defensible space, or “firescaping,” residents can carve a barrier between their home and flammable vegetation. A defensible space around the perimeter of the house should be well-irrigated and free of brush, vegetation and other materials that could fuel a fire. Adding fuel breaks such as gravel walkways or driveways can help.

If you’ve got the space, Cal Fire recommends creating a buffer, of at least several hundred feet, with fire-resistant plants and noncombustible materials, such as concrete or gravel. Homeowners should also move branches, firewood and garbage to other areas around the home.

“Having defensible space does make a big difference,” said Brian Centoni, the public information officer for the Fire Department in Alameda County, Calif.

But no matter how safe you think your home may be, you must leave if the authorities order you to evacuate.

 

• Home hardening, a term used to describe the process of modifying a home to make it more fireresistant, can help protect firefighters, too. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends plugging a garden hose into a water line so fire departments can have access to it. You should identify and maintain water sources such as hydrants, ponds and pools and make sure they are accessible. You also can ensure that your driveway is clear for emergency vehicles and make sure your address signs are clearly visible from the road.

 

•The next best thing to “firescaping” is filling your garden with fire-resistant plants, such as french lavender or sage. These plants are also drought-friendly.

Cal Fire recommends curating your garden to be a fire-resistant zone but cautions that just because plants such as currant and aloe are less likely to catch on fire, that doesn’t mean they’re fireproof.

• FEMA recommends regularly clearing your roof and gutters of dry leaves and other debris. To prevent embers from flying in, enclose or box in eaves, soffits, decks and other openings in the home’s structure; fine wire mesh can be used to cover vents, crawl spaces and the area underneath porches and decks.

 

• If you are unable to make major changes to your house or landscaping, Carrie Bilbao, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, recommends conducting a quick assessment of your property and making small but critical changes such as removing flammable items — couch cushions and brooms that are stored outside.

“One thing that people do need to remember is that it’s not just an individual effort but a community effort,” Bilbao said. “You can do all you can for your own home, but if your next-door neighbor doesn’t, the potential for fire to come and impact you is greater.”

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