Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

logo.jpg - 17989 Bytes

April 2005

Is your home firewise?

Protect your property from wildfires.

Matt Duvall and Jolene Ackerman

Your home was your castle in medieval times. High stone walls, massive drawbridges and deep moats protected you against competing monarchies and roving bandits.


Today, homes built in the wildland could take a tip or two from their medieval predecessors. Using non-flammable building materials and landscaping plants, and providing ample access for emergency vehicles will improve the chances that your modern palace in the pines will survive a wildfire.

Many parts of a home are vulnerable to wildfire. The roof is the most exposed portion of a home exterior and is the most at risk from flying embers. Roofs near any wildland area should be constructed of noncombustible materials and all roofs and gutters should be kept clean of pine needles, leaves or other burnable material.

Unfortunately, homes are often made of materials that melt or ignite when exposed to heat or flames. Consider using fire-resistant siding and logs, masonry or stucco. Vinyl siding and soffits, when exposed to heat from a wildfire, will melt and fall away from structures, leaving a passageway for embers to ignite insulation or enter the attic. Airborne embers also can enter attics through open eaves or vents. For these reasons, it is especially important to keep flammable objects like shrubs and firewood stacks away buildings and keep eaves and vents covered with a tight mesh screen.

Anything attached to your home, such as a deck, fence or garage can also carry fire into your home. Decks should be enclosed to keep debris from collecting underneath. Keep flammable vegetation and debris away from the base of your deck, fence and garage. These are the same places where flying embers will collect should a fire occur in your neighborhood.

Windows can transmit radiant heat and break under heat stress. Tempered or double-paned glass windows will protect a home better than single-paned windows during a wildfire. Most importantly, keep flammable objects away from windows.

Clean and inspect your chimney at least once a year and use a chimney cap with a spark arrestor. Keep a garden hose that is long enough to reach any area of your home and any other structures on your property. Develop a water supply. Water can be supplied from nearby creeks, rivers, lakes, ponds and even swimming pools.

Nearly every home has some tools that can be used in the event of a wildfire. People living in fireprone areas should have some fire protection tools on hand. Shovels and rakes can be used to create a firebreak around your home. And, of course, fire extinguishers should always be on hand.

In the fire protection world, 30 feet around the home is known as "defensible space." In this space, all trees should be pruned and kept widely spaced. Evergreen trees and shrubs should be kept to a minimum. Remove dead, dying and diseased plants or plant parts. Maintain a vegetation-free zone three-feet-wide around all structures. Create "island" gardens that are separated by nonflammable features such as lawns or stones. Choose plants with fire-resistant qualities. Succulent plants, deciduous trees and shrubs, and plants with thick leaves are better suited to a fire prone environment.

Wood chips and straw are ideal places for embers to land, smolder and ignite. Use these mulches sparingly and never alongside the house.

In order for firefighters to protect your home, they must be able to reach and exit your property safely. Post the house address along the road at the driveway entrance as well as on the home.

Build and maintain your driveway so it is wide enough and straight enough for a fire engine to navigate. A good rule of thumb is a 12-foot wide driveway with 14 feet of overhead clearance. Longer driveways and those with curves should be closer to 20-feet wide.

Your castle is only as strong as its weakest point. Invest in a home sprinkler system. Take the time to assess your property and make the necessary changes. With a comfortable fleece vest as your armor and chainsaw as your sword, go forth and defend your castle.

Matt Duvall is UW-Extension's Central Wisconsin basin educator for natural resources. Jolene Ackerman is DNR's wildland-urban interface coordinator.