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Tips to harden your home from wildfires

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When Doug Kent wrote the first edition of his book, “Firescaping: Protecting Your Home with a Fire-Resistant Landscape,” back in 2005, it was all about the plants. You can make your landscape more fire-safe, he concluded, by choosing plants that are less combustible. It seemed almost too good to be true.

And so it was.

In the 14 years since, California has experienced a wave of terrifying, wind-driven firestorms that roared into urban areas and laid waste to thousands of homes.

The Tubbs and Nuns fires of 2017 ripped through Fountaingrove, Mark West and Coffey Park in Santa Rosa taking down 5,636 structures; a complex of fires at the same time around the upper Sonoma Valley blackened 56,556 acres and destroyed 1,527 structures.

The Kincade fire last fall engulfed 78,000 acres and destroyed 374 structures.

After the Tubbs fire, the first edition of “Firescaping” sold out. So Wilderness Press asked Kent to work on a new edition.

What he discovered after the most recent fires, including the Camp fire that devastated the town of Paradise in Butte County, is that the biggest threat to property comes not from flames and burning brush but from flying embers. Even if the flames at a fire’s edge never reach your home, embers can be carried a mile or more in front of a wildfire and find their way into a crack or eave of your home, setting the whole place ablaze.

“I found out it wasn’t really gardens killing people,” said Kent, a landscape architect and ecological land management specialist who has built a name as an expert in protecting homes and landscapes from fire. “Like in Paradise. You’d see these beautiful forests and hundreds of homes gone with junipers sitting next to them.”

Juniper has a reputation as one of the most fire-prone species. It’s sometimes dubbed “gasoline bush” by firefighters.

While choosing less fire-prone plants is still smart in wildfire country, Kent cautions that “home hardening” is far more important. That’s one of the most significant changes he made when updating “Firescaping.” The second edition, released in late 2019 (Wilderness Press, $21.95), puts more emphasis on preparing your property to withstand a barrage of firebrands — wind-propelled objects carried for some distance in an airstream — that could go on for days. He also stresses the importance of landscape maintenance.

For evidence, look back to the California missions.

“Not one mission was ever destroyed in a wildfire, and that persisted for hundreds of years,” said Kent, who was living in woodsy Marin County when he wrote the first edition of “Firescaping.” He has since resettled in Southern California, where he has his own landscape design company in Orange and teaches at Cal Poly Pomona.

The mission friars built their structures with adobe clay and small windows, he said. They kept water in their courtyards. There were no wild plants near the complex. Every plant served a function.

“We have plants as pets,” he said. “The Spanish would never have a plants as pets,” he said, referring to our heavy use of plants for ornamental purposes. “They were all for food purposes or they would be gone. It was a dynamic, working landscape. There was nothing dead, dying or diseased. Otherwise it would have been removed and replaced with alive, thriving and producing plants. Food plants have an impeccable record of stopping wildfire.”

The problem with relying on plant lists, he said, is that the ability of any plant to resist fire depends on its condition. If it is old, dry, infested with pests or poorly cared for, it will be more vulnerable.

Kent recommends property owners engage in aggressive maintenance of what they have. That means pruning or removing dead, dying or diseased vegetation and making sure there is proper spacing between trees. Remove leaves and other debris from roof gutters and fallen debris littering the property.

Take out plants that are known to be flammable. Some of the common ones include acacia, fir, cypress, sweet bay, spruce, yew and California bay, among trees. Perennials and shrubs that can be problematic in fire country include rosemary, tear tree, juniper, Coyote bush and buckwheat, as well as field and black mustard. Grasses that should be removed include Pampas grass, which also is invasive, fountain grass, deer grass and annual grasses such as barley, oats and rye.

Remove anything that is remotely flammable from within 5 feet of the house. Keep plants watered before they show signs of stress. Make sure all paths are stable and easy to navigate.

But beyond that, the best thing a homeowner can do is button up.

Kent said that with the Woolsey fire of November 2018 in Simi Valey, 60% of the homes lost were burned not by direct flames but by firebrands entering homes through gaps in garage doors, attics and other spots.

“So I put architecture really big in this edition of the book,” he said.

How do you harden your home against firebrands? First, remove an ignitable debris on the roof during fire season. Look for gaps bigger than 1/8 of an inch. These can occur in the fascia, the board mounted at the point where the roof meets the outer walls of the house. It may also refer to the main board that carries the gutter.

There are major structural things you can do such as making certain your roof is a Class A, made of fire-resistant materials such as metal, clay or concrete tiles. If you have wood shingles, you may want to make a new roof or siding a priority. But that may not always be possible.

Here are a few things most people can do to harden up their properties well before fire season gets under way.

Fix and fill in any fissures and cracks in the siding.

Fill in Gaps: Look for gaps along the outside of windows and fill them in. Windows should be made from temperated glass and be either double- or thermal-paned.

Curtains, siding and flammables: Replace fabric curtains with louvers, shutters or fire curtains. Repair or repaint any blemishes to the siding, such as paint that appears to be peeling. Power washing the sides of your house can also remove peeling paint. Replace old screens. Screens should be made from corrosion-resistant, noncombustible wire mesh with wire gaps no larger than ½ inch and no smaller than ⅜ inch. Properly seal or screen all vents and entry points into your home or surrounding outbuildings.

Air vents: In fire country they should be of noncombustible, corrosion-resistant mesh no greater than 1/8 inch. Remove debris, furniture and sick plants within 5 feet of your house. If you have attached shade structures over patios, you may want to seriously consider detaching them from the house. They can trap firebrands.

Shades: Remove any canvas shades. If you’re considering building or rebuilding a shade structure, keep it 5 feet from the house and tilt the shade roof in the same direction as the roof of the house, allowing hot air to vent out and preventing it from catching firebrands. Remove anything remotely ignitable under the house or deck. Skirt overhanging features with an ignition-resistant material such as gypsum board.

Keep roof accessible: Maintain easy access to the roof by removing clutter on the ground and overhead obstructions. Decks should be made from brick, tile or concrete. If you have wood decks, the planks should be joined using tongue-and-groove construction, leaving no gaps between boards. Wood should have a 1-hour fire-resistance rating.

Replace wood fences: Consider replacing old wood fences with low-fuel fences, such as wire mesh or part wire-mesh fencing or rail fencing. Boulders and stacked rock walls can also serve to set off areas.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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