Evaluate your home’s protection against embers

The Crews Fire, which burned more than 5,000 acres, came dangerously close to this Gilroy home. Photo: Juan Reyes

By Dwight Good

Editor’s note: The recent wildfires, from Paicines to Morgan Hill, are a somber reminder that we live in a region that is susceptible to these devastating blazes.

According to Cal Fire, the number of wildfires and acres burned so far this year in the state have exceeded last year’s total from the same seven-month period. From Jan. 1 to July 5, the number of fires in California stood at 3,562, totaling 23,640 acres.

From that same period in 2019, a total of 2,041 fires ignited, burning 18,564 acres. The five-year average during the same interval reports a smaller number of fires as well, but more acreage.

The summer fire preparedness season in San Benito began on May 18, with Santa Clara’s beginning not long after.

However, any time is a good time to prepare your home, inside and out, for the possibility of a wildfire.

Fire Marshal Dwight Good, who serves the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit, urges residents to be “Ember Aware.” The campaign is intended to educate people on the risks of ember cast during wildfires and the actions they can take to reduce those risks. 

The following article is the first installment in a series written by Good on wildfire preparation.

Most homes are destroyed by wildfires because wind-driven burning embers come into contact with something easily ignited on, in or near the home. When evaluating your home and property’s vulnerability to embers, you should do it in the context of wildfire conditions. You should assume:

• Hot temperatures, very low humidity and strong gusting winds;

• Poor visibility due to smoke;

• No electricity;

• Little or no water pressure;

• No telephone, including cell phone service;

• Panicking people acting irrationally;

• Firefighters will not be protecting your home and will likely not even be in your neighborhood;

• You and your family will not be present; and

• Thousands of burning embers coming from burning pieces of bark, pine cones, branches and construction materials are being driven by winds into your house and onto your roof.

Now assume that your home is exactly as you left it this morning when you left for work or errands. Would it survive under these conditions? Did you leave a window open? Did you forget to close the garage door? Is the firewood pile stacked next to the house? Are the garbage cans on the back porch full and not covered by lids? 

Take steps now to reduce the ember threat to your home. Waiting until the fire starts may cost you your home. 

Most people believe that wildfires ignite homes through direct contact with flames, but it is rare to have a home ignite this way. Flaming brands and embers can travel a mile or more ahead of the active front of a wildfire and up to 60 percent of wildland/urban interface home ignitions result from embers. Make changes now to reduce the ember threat to your home.  

The Ember Aware campaign is intended to educate people on the risks of ember cast and the actions they can take to reduce those risks, to encourage residents to harden their homes against embers and/or to maintain those ember-resistant features, and to practice ember-safe housekeeping and landscaping. You can learn more at www.emberaware.com.

Fire Marshal Dwight Good, MS, EFO, serves the Morgan Hill Fire Department, South Santa Clara County Fire Protection District and Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit. He has 25 years of fire service experience. For questions or comments, email [email protected] or call 408.310.4654.

Defensible space

Defensible space is essential to improving your home’s chance of surviving a wildfire. It’s the buffer you create between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs or any wildland area that surround it. This space is needed to slow or stop the spread of wildfire and it helps protect your home from catching fire—either from direct flame contact or radiant heat.

Two zones make up the required 100 feet of defensible space.

Zone 1 extends 30 feet from buildings, structures, decks, etc.:

• Remove all dead plants, grass and weeds (vegetation).

• Remove dead or dry leaves and pine needles from your yard, roof and rain gutters.

• Remove branches that hang over your roof and keep dead branches 10 feet away from your chimney.

• Trim trees regularly to keep branches a minimum of 10 feet from other trees.

• Relocate wood piles to Zone 2.

• Remove or prune flammable plants and shrubs near windows.

• Remove vegetation and items that could catch fire from around and under decks.

• Create a separation between trees, shrubs and items that could catch fire, such as patio furniture, wood piles, swing sets, etc.

Zone 2 extends 100 feet out from buildings, structures, decks, etc.:

• Cut or mow annual grass down to a maximum height of four inches.

• Create horizontal space between shrubs and trees.

• Create vertical space between grass, shrubs and trees.

• Remove fallen leaves, needles, twigs, bark, cones and small branches. However, they may be permitted to a depth of three inches.

—Information from Cal Fire, readyforwildfire.org