Every year hundreds of hectares of land are destroyed by raging wildfires that burn uncontrollably, causing devastation to the natural environment, farmlands and often to homes and property in their path. Because fires usually occur in hot, dry, windy conditions, when conditions are favorable a small insignificant smoldering fire may be fanned into an out of control inferno in no time at all, often flaring up in many different places simultaneously, making it difficult for fire fighters to contain all fronts with their limited resources, leading to runaway bush fires. Fireproofing your home can save your property and your life in the event of a wildfire approaching too close for comfort. This article offers some practical tips on how to make your home more fire-resilient.
In the past few years we have witnessed numerous runaway wildfires that have caused serious damage and loss of property across the world, including California, Australia and South Africa. In the wake of such devastation it would seem prudent for homeowners to take precautions to prevent extensive damage to their properties posed by the ever-present threat of runaway fires. In most instances this merely requires the implementation of a few simple cost-effective measures, and a bit of forward planning. Although homes on the urban fringe bordering natural areas are most at risk, very often it is homes nowhere near the fire front that are razed, as wind blown embers ignite combustible material on or near the house, setting it ablaze – thatch roof homes are always vulnerable and require special attention.
Essentially, a fire needs three elements to sustain it: fuel (vegetation or combustible material/liquid/gas), ignition (spark) and air (wind). We can prevent or stop a fire by removing any one of these elements. We can’t do much about the wind, but we can prevent fires by not starting fires we cannot stop. Don’t make fires on a windy day where they can quickly be fanned out of control. As the saying goes, it only takes a spark to get a fire going, so by not adding spark we can prevent fires. Don’t throw burning cigarette butts out the car window, play with matches or leave a fire burning unattended. We can also take measures to slow or even stop a fire spreading by reducing the combustible fuel load available. By doing so you may save your house in the event of fire.
Fireproofing Your Garden
Lets start with the garden… In order to mitigate the damage fire can cause to your home it would be wise to take precautions to fire proof your garden to prevent flames from a runaway fire reaching your house. Thickets of highly combustible invader species such as pines and gums bordering or on the property should be cleared as they burn rapidly and pose a huge fire risk. Planting fire resistant succulent vegetation such as sour figs, aloes and milkwoods on the perimeter of your property will reduce the chance that fire will penetrate the boundary of your property, as they are high in moisture and slow burning, thus acting as effective firebreaks. Trees should not overhang the roof of your house, and inflammable trees containing resin or oils, such as gums, pines and cedars, should be at least 10m, but preferably 30m away. An expanse of short, green lawn surrounding your house will slow down a fire and substantially reduce the risk of fire engulfing your home. Use fire resistant crushed stone, pebbles and paving instead of bark or wood chips for pathways and garden features immediately adjacent to your house. Stacks of firewood and compost heaps should be positioned a safe distance from the house. Paint wooden decking and other wooden structures with a fire retardant, and keep the area underneath them free of long grass, leaves and debris. Woody shrubs and creepers on trellises attached to walls or pergolas can act as a fire ladder igniting your home as flames leap upward. Keep these well pruned by removing dead leaves and branches regularly.
Fireproofing Your House
A house may catch alight well after the fire front has passed. Burning embers may be blown into gutters or air vents and can ignite combustible material that has accumulated. So now that you’ve taken preventive measures in the garden, the next step would be to take measures to fireproof your house. Clean out gutters and keep them free from dead leaves that can easily catch alight by airborne sparks carried by the wind. Eaves, air vents and chimneys should be screened to prevent glowing embers from being blown into the roof and igniting ceilings and roof timbers. Trees and woody shrubs should not be positioned adjacent to the house. Gas bottles and other combustible materials should preferably be kept in a safe fire resistant area away from drains, windows, and doors where gas can accumulate.
Have a Fire Contingency Plan
Fireproofing your home is a good precaution, but if your safety is threatened, you may need to make the decision as to whether to stay and fight the fire or to evacuate. Either way, it is wise to have a contingency plan in place in the event that a fire should endanger your household. All members of your family should be aware of what to do in the event of being threatened by fire. Important documents should be kept in a safe place where they can be grabbed in a hasty evacuation. If your home is vulnerable to fire, keep a fire fighting kit comprising of fire fighting equipment (fire extinguishers, sand buckets, long hoses, beaters), protective clothing and blankets stored where it is readily accessible in an emergency. If a fire is approaching your home, close all doors and windows and remove loose curtains that can easily catch alight. If threatened by fire, you will need to kick into survival mode and assess whether to fight or take flight. Firstly, consider the needs of pets, small children and the elderly and frail in a threatening situation. If you need to evacuate, leave the house on the opposite side that the fire is approaching from, shielded by wet blankets and head quickly to an open area. If you decide to stay on and tackle the fire always put your safety and that of your loved ones above bravery, and never ever try to out-run a runaway fire at the last minute.
Finally, always remember the boy scout’s motto: “Be prepared”.