If it seems that there have been more wildfires in the news lately, you’re not imagining it. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Climate change, including increased heat, extended drought, and a thirsty atmosphere, has been a key driver in increasing the risk and extent of wildfires in the western United States during the last two decades.”
And the US is by no means the only area impacted. Countless wildfires have occurred globally in recent years throughout regions with no previous occurrences. Although fires have always been a part of our natural world, now they are moving to entire ecosystems previously untouched by fire.
The World Research Institute says, “…in 2023, the world has already seen heightened fire activity, including record-breaking burns across Canada and catastrophic fires in Hawaii.” Add in wildfires across the world from the Arctic to Siberia, Indonesia to Argentina, Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands to Australia and the growing concern by global scientists is understandable.
How Growth into the Wildlife Urban Interface Increases Wildfire Risk
The Wildlife Urban Interface (WUI) is the transition zone between unoccupied “wildland” and human development, from warehouses and factories, to shops and entertainment venues, to housing developments. In this transitional zone, new structures directly abut undeveloped wildland, rich in vegetative fuels.
So, what does the combination of a global increase in wildfires and continued expansion into the WUI mean for the business owner? And what steps can property managers take to maintain the safety of their facilities?
Wildfire Mitigation Best Practices
Businesses and housing developments located in the WUI must recognize the unique challenges and risks to their properties and incorporate effective wildfire mitigation practices.
Russ Leavitt, Chairman of industry-leading fire protection firm Telgian Fire Safety explains, “Fire mitigation is defined as reducing the risk of property loss, personal injury, or death from fire. While the ultimate goal is to completely eliminate these risks through mitigation, it is simply not practical to make property or lives completely free from the risks associated with fire.”
“The fact is that, like most things, we are looking for reasonableness,” Leavitt says. “…there are a number of things that can be done at minimal expense to significantly lower the losses from fire. Most structures ignite during a wildfire due to airborne embers which are burning pieces of combustibles (such as wood, leaves, vegetation, etc.). Wildfire mitigation is focused on reducing the risk of ignition from embers.”
Data shows that the chance of a facility igniting during a wildfire is directly related to the condition of the building and the surrounding areas. Therefore, the most basic mitigation practice is to remove any combustible materials that are located near the structure. This includes vegetation, trash, debris, firewood, or any other combustible building materials. Simple good housekeeping includes keeping roofs and gutters free from dead leaves and pine needles, as well as keeping tree branches a minimum of 10 ft. away from the edge of the building.
How to Establish a Protective Barrier (5 ft. Zone)
The most effective means of mitigating the risk is to create a buffer around it. It is essential to pay specific attention to the first 5 ft. immediately surrounding the building. Keeping this area free of combustibles that can be ignited by embers can stop a fire from spreading to the structure. It’s important to ensure that combustible debris (dead plant material, for example) does not accumulate in this area. And whenever possible, use landscape materials such as pea gravel, pavers, or non-combustible mulch in this 5-ft. zone. Planting of wildfire resistive vegetation (deciduous trees and shrubs, or plants like aloe or succulents) will also keep your risk low.
Building owners and property managers must evaluate the condition of the structure itself. Missing or loose siding should be replaced, vents should be covered with metal mesh screens, and damaged windows or screens should be repaired or replaced. Where feasible, it is a good idea to box in decks, patios, staircases to keep combustible materials from collecting, unnoticed underneath.
It is also important to consider the condition of the roof. If the roof is not rated against fire, when it is time to reroof, use a Class A rated roofing material. Nearly all asphalt shingles on the market are Class A fire-rated. Both clay and concrete tile roofs are also Class A.
Wildfire Mitigation Tips Beyond the 5 ft. Zone
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the areas outside the 5-ft. zone are used to create fire breaks to mitigate a fire’s behavior. These mitigation efforts include keeping lawns and other grasses to a maximum height of 4 inches, pruning trees to keep branches a minimum of 6 ft. above the ground, and keeping trees and shrubs in small clusters. Uncovered patios, pathways, driveways and parking lots can create effective fire breaks, as well. The focus in this extended zone is to use landscaping to interrupt the fire’s path and to keep the fire wall (flames) as small as possible.
Specific actions for this zone include removing all dead vegetation (including trees), removing combustible debris and garbage, removing young trees from in between more mature trees, and watching the spacing between mature trees. It is recommended that trees that are located from 30 ft. to 60 ft. from large buildings have at least 12 ft. between their canopy tops.
Do not neglect any outbuildings. Keeping these structures free from encroaching vegetation or combustible debris assists in keeping fires small and limiting the discharge of embers.
Steps Business Owners and Property Managers Can Take Right Now
- Trim trees to keep branches away from roofs
- Remove dead vegetation within the immediate 5-ft. zone.
- Do not allow combustible debris to accumulate against or under buildings or outside structures
- Keep grass to a maximum height of 4 inches.
- Speak with the local fire department or the forest service to discuss the severity of the risk in the area where buildings are located
- Develop a site-wide plan for emergency action in the case of a wildfire
- Create an evacuation along with methods for emergency communication
Additional Wildfire Mitigation Strategies, Information and Resources
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is the premier resource for fire safety, including wildfire mitigation. Go to nfpa.org and scroll under public education for a wealth of information. Other resources for business owners include the U.S. Fire Administration and the USDA Forest Service.
About Telgian Fire Safety
Since 1985, Telgian Fire Safety has served as a trusted partner to clients around the globe, providing innovative solutions and keeping facilities safe, compliant and on budget. Telgian’s expertise includes testing, inspections and repair (ITM) of Fire Life Safety Systems including Fire Sprinkler Systems, Fire Alarm Systems, Fire Extinguishers, Emergency/Exit Lights, Special Hazards, and Clean Agent Systems as well as Elevator and Fire Alarm Monitoring. We specialize in service to multi-location properties, as well as large single-campus facilities. Telgian services approximately 50,000 locations annually throughout the US and abroad, providing a centralized approach and standardized way for clients to manage FLS programs including Inventory Tracking, Capital Replacement Programs, Budgeting and Forecasting. In addition, our customer-first culture ensures that clients receive the best service for their unique needs. Telgian is an unbiased provider, separating the inspection and testing process from the repairs, and eliminating all conflict of interest.
Contact us for immediate support at 1.480.753.5444 or firstname.lastname@example.org.