The effects of catastrophic fires take a toll on recreational areas, agricultural land, and even urban centers like Seattle.

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Wildfire. It’s a word that once indicated faraway danger, or perhaps just a natural part of a forest or prairie’s ecosystem. But as the climate changes, and more people move into wildland areas wildfire has become a headline word. There were a total of 1,732 fires in Washington state in 2018, the USDA Forest Service reports, and the side effects were inescapable for most Washingtonians. This past summer felt different; only 18 large fires broke out across the state and the rolling smoke clouds from recent summers past didn’t materialize in the greater Seattle area as some had feared.

But with fewer wildfires than originally projected, sources of fuel – brush and trees – continued to build up, strengthening the possibility of a bad summer next year. That’s why protecting against wildfire risks goes beyond taking precautions during hot, dry summer months. Regular maintenance and a few priority projects around your home now will help prepare for what’s to come in the future.

Prevention and protection this offseason

The top question homeowners ask about wildfire protection, says Harris Clarke, vice president of claims, customer service, and sales for PEMCO, is: “What’s the most important thing I can do to protect my home?” The answer, he says, varies depending on the individual property, but clearing brush and creating a defensible space around the home are two actions that can significantly improve a home’s ability to survive a fire.

During active wildfires, the main cause of home ignitions is embers. Traveling miles ahead of active fires, embers cause up to 90 percent of home and business ignitions during wildfires. To prepare for these embers and other wildfire danger in the offseason, Harris recommends that in addition to creating a 5-foot non-combustible zone around the house to also pay particular attention to  windows, chimneys, and fences in the off season to safeguard your property.

  • Windows. Upgrade windows using tempered glass for wildfire resistance and energy efficiency. Dual-pane windows without tempered glass don’t protect as well in active fire conditions. Using at least one pane of tempered glass on the outside of dual-pane windows are a good minimum to help harden a home from wildfire.
  • Chimneys. It’s important to clean woodstoves or fireplace chimneys every year. And, if you don’t already have one, consider installing a spark arrestor with a ½-inch mesh screen to prevent large embers from escaping through the chimney. This will protect your roof and your neighbors’ homes.
  • Fences. Wooden fencing that connects to a home can act like a wick, directing flames all the way to the structure and igniting combustible siding. Insert a metal shield where the fence connects to the exterior siding or retrofit it so the fence ends with a noncombustible material – like masonry, metal or a heavy timber – to keep fire from spreading. Some people attach a metal gate in between the fence and the exterior siding.

Spring cleaning checklist

Harris offers a few tips that don’t take a lot of effort but have a huge impact on creating a fire-resistant home. These can be done as part of regular spring maintenance and cleaning.

  • Clean your gutters. Regularly cleaning out your gutters will help ensure that leaves and other debris cannot catch fire from wind-blown embers.
  • Move firewood piles. Keep firewood, lumber or other highly flammable items away from your home. These items should be stored a safe distance away from any structures on your property.
  • Create a 5-foot non-combustible zone. Use noncombustible materials like rock or gravel mulches in the first five feet around your home to reduce the chance of wind-blown embers igniting materials close to your house. If you’re set on having a garden nearby, choose low-growing plants like irrigated flowers and keep them well-watered.
  • Cover all vents. Adding 1/8-inch mesh screen coverings to vents creates a barrier for embers. Embers cause the majority of home ignitions, so it’s important to make sure vents are covered and that mesh screens are in good condition and not rusted. Think about overlooked spaced like your attic and crawl spaces.

Faraway fires

Wildfires can pose a risk even when the fires themselves are miles away. Massive clouds of smoke can travel hundreds of miles, and that smoke impacts our health.

One of PEMCO’s recent Northwest Polls found that 56 percent of Washington residents have been bothered by smoke or poor air quality resulting from wildfires. The best thing people can do to keep the air inside their homes as clean as possible is to close all doors and windows. Keeping an eye on local air quality reports and visibility guides will help homeowners know when to take steps to protect themselves against poor air quality.

No matter your proximity to fire, safety officials recommend taking the following actions to protect yourself and your loved ones from wildfire smoke, especially children and certain adults who are more likely to feel the effects of poor air quality:

  • Keep an eye out for local air quality reports and visibility guides.
  • Avoid unnecessary outdoor activities when health warnings are in effect.
  • Keep the air inside your house as clean as possible by closing windows and doors.
  • Do not rely on paper masks to protect your lungs.
  • Consult your doctor if you have a chronic heart or lung condition, such as asthma.

The impacts of wildfires are felt far beyond the acres burned or the smoke created. As wildfires become more frequent and intense, it’s important that everyone become educated on the actions they need to take to stay safe, starting in the off season.

Join us for a panel discussion about wildfire impacts Oct. 10 at the Pacific Science Center.  PEMCO Insurance understands how to defend the things that matter to you. Our mission is to free our communities to worry less and live more.