Scientists say small, practical steps offer best hope to protect homes from wildfires

Due to an ongoing drought, communities throughout the western United States are facing an elevated risk from wildfires. Authorities in Oregon have been battling a blaze that local officials have called unprecedented, while firefighters in California have been working nonstop since last year to contain wildfire activity.

An analysis of available data by Chubb Insurance found California has by far the highest number of reported wildfires each year. In an interview with ABC, Governor Jerry Brown said the state is more vulnerable today not just because of the drought, but also because it is more densely settled, which means more properties end up in the path of wildfires. In light of the current trends, Brown said the state government is "getting ready for the worst."

"We've already appropriated $600 million. We have 5,000 firefighters. We're going to need thousands more. And in the years to come, we're going to have to make very expensive investments and adjust," Brown said.

Many different stakeholders need to adapt to the increased risk of wildfires, from frontline firefighters to insurance carriers. Fortunately, as a recent article in National Geographic points out, researchers have significantly expanded their understanding of how wildfires spread among structures in recent years. Specifically, there is a growing recognition of the impact that property-level conditions have on a structure's susceptibility to fire.

Unusual burn patterns prompted closer look at how wildfires spread

While studying the subject at the University of California several years ago, scientist Steve Quarles examined the aftermath of the Cedar Fire, which destroyed 2,200 homes in Southern California. Quarles explained that, at the time, he was puzzled by the presence of unburned areas in regions that had otherwise been complete desolated by the fire.

He determined that the popular conception of flames spreading directly from one building to the next fails to explain the way many fires move. Instead, fires more frequently spread to new structures when burning embers that have been picked up by the wind land on or around a new property.

If these "firebrands" land in an area with flammable material, such as a roof or gutter that holds fallen leaves and branches, they can quickly ignite a fire large enough to set the structure ablaze. Homeowners can significantly increase their resilience to wildfires by making relatively minor adjustments and performing routine maintenance work around the house and yard.

"That's the surprising fact for folks," explained Michele Steinberg of the National Fire Protection Association. "I'm thinking I have to chop down every tree in the forest to protect my home, but what's really going to get me is the mulch up against the house or the doggy door that isn't sealed."

The organization provides additional safety information for homeowners and communities through its Firewise program. Tips for staying safe during wildfire season include:

  • Regularly clearing the home's gutters and roof of flammable material
  • Covering vent openings with screens
  • Closing off areas under raised decks or porches

Chubb Insurance notes that flame-retardant materials can also increase a structure's resiliency to wildfires. However, using these materials in construction can affect the cost of replacing the structure. Insurance carriers can do their part to be prepared for wildfires by ensuring that they have a valuation system capable of accurately calculating replacement cost estimates for any type or size residential property.