5 ways to snuff out wildfire risks

By Posted : 06/23/2011

Home insurance wildfireIf you live in an area at risk for wildfire, this year's massive blaze in eastern Arizona and a host of other fires should send a chill down your spine.

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Wildfires nationwide have burned more than 5,000 square miles in the first half of 2011, a level unmatched in the last dozen years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climatic Data Center. In May alone, 6,625 fires burned more than 1,600 square miles across the country.

Wildfires are inevitable, and embers can travel and ignite homes up to a mile away from a wildfire. But that doesn't mean you're powerless.

"There are simple steps homeowners can take to reduce their risk of fire losses," says Chris Hackett, director of personal lines policy for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Follow these tips to protect your home and family:

1. Create defensible space

Establish a buffer around your home to prevent fire from reaching the structure. Check with your state or county about defensible space requirements if you live in an area at risk for wildfire.

For example, California requires defensible space to extend 100 feet outward from buildings. Under its guidelines, you should do the following: 

  • Within the first 30 feet (or the first 50 feet in San Diego): Remove all dead plants, dried grass, fallen pine needles, flammable plants and wood piles and trim trees to keep branches at least 10 feet away from other trees
  • In the next 70 feet: Remove fallen leaves, branches, needles and cones, mow grass to 4 inches or less, and space trees and shrubs a safe distance apart.

"Creating defensible space is the easiest and cheapest way to increase a home's chances of surviving a wildfire," says Daniel Berlant, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson.

2. Harden your home

Use non-combustible materials to upgrade or build a home. The roof is the most vulnerable part of the structure, fire officials say. Replace wood shingles with composition, metal or tile. Cover vent openings, chimney outlets and stovepipes with metal mesh, and screen or enclose gutters to prevent plant debris from accumulating.

Use fire-resistant plants in landscaping.

3. Make a disaster plan

Make a list of things you will need to take in the wake of a fire threat. Decide where family members will meet in case you have to evacuate.

4. Do an inventory

Having a complete inventory of all your possessions helps the insurance claims process go smoothly. The Insurance Information Institute offers free online software to create an inventory at KnowYourStuff.org.

5. Make sure you have enough insurance

Let your insurer know if you've remodeled so your home insurance reflects the upgrades. Remember, your home insurance coverage limit should equal the cost to rebuild the home if it were destroyed, not the current market value, Hackett says.

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