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As California begins to recover from the recent wildfires that devastated Napa and Sonoma counties, homeowners in high-risk or drought-prone areas are reminded of the colossal threat these events pose to their livelihood.
The autumn months with accumulated dead leaves in many parts of the United States may be another source of wildfires and extensive damage to homes and businesses.
According to the Insurance Information Institute and the 2017 Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis, 4.5 million homes were identified at high or extreme risk of wildfire. 2 million of these homes are located in California alone, and the rest are located throughout the western United States, from the coast to the northern Rocky Mountains.
Related: Wildfires: an expanding threat?
There are a number of safety precautions at-risk homeowners and property owners can take to help protect themselves and their homes and property in the event of a wildfire, along with safety preparedness measures to plan for in case disaster strikes.
Here are 10 things you and your clients need to know about wildfires:
1. When do wildfires occur, and how often?
Wildfires mainly threaten the western United States from June through September. Any area with drought conditions faces a risk of wildfires. The general frequency is 140,000 fires per year, and in 2016, 5.5 million acres were burned by wildfires.
Related: Top 10 ZIP codes for fire loss
2. What are the most common dangers of wildfires?
The most common dangers wildfires pose are from the rapid spread of fire and burning embers worsened by strong winds. “Fire whirls” or “fire tornados” created by the intense heat and winds can hurl flaming logs and debris, destroying property and natural habitats.
3. How intense are wildfires?
The risk and intensity of wildfires are scaled by the KBDI soil/duff (ground litter) drought index. Factors that influence the scores are maximum daily temperature, precipitation, prior precipitation, and annual precipitation.
The drought index is organized as follows:
- 0-200 = Soil and fuel moisture are high; spring dormant season following winter precipitation.
- 200-400= Late spring, early growing season; low litter layers are drying and begin to contribute to fire intensity.
- 400-600= Late summer early fall; low litter actively contributes to fire intensity and will actively burn.
- 600-800 = Associated with severe drought with an increased incidence of wildfires; deep burning fires with downwind spotting can be expected, and live fuels will burn actively.
4. What kinds of damage do wildfires cause?
Wildfires burn hotter than normal fires, and they can release the energy of an atomic bomb. Wildfires can sterilize soil and destroy forests, taking a century to recover.
What some may find surprising is that most damage to homes is caused by windblown embers. Few homes in wildfire areas burn because of direct contact with flames. Because of this, fires will spread more rapidly in areas where houses are in close proximity to each other.
5. What safety and preparedness measures should I take?
There are a number of preventative actions homeowners who live in at-risk areas can take.
Homeowners can use non-combustible or fire resistant roofing material and treat wood siding, cedar shakes and wood paneling with fire-resistant chemicals as well. Make sure roofs and gutters are regularly cleaned of leaves and branches to avoid accumulation of flammable debris.
Outside your home, remove tree limbs within 10 feet of stove or chimney openings, and keep a mesh screen over flue openings.
6. What should I do if I’m in my home when a wildfire occurs?
Secure your home by closing windows and interior doors and turning off gas and appliances before you evacuate. Leaving your lights on will make your house more visible in heavy smoke. Prepare emergency supplies, including food and water, prescriptions, clothes, flashlights, batteries and any other essential items.
If you have time, remove loose objects from your yard, including dead tree limbs and highly flammable items. Take important documents with you, like insurance policies, an updated home inventory, wills, deeds, identification and medical cards. If you have pets, bring their records too.
Lastly, respond to evacuation notices, and heed directions from emergency personnel. Follow a family emergency plan, if you have one, and if you see a fire, call 911; never assume someone else already has.
7. What should I do if I’m in my vehicle?
If you are in your vehicle when you encounter a wildfire, stay in your car with your lights on and vents and windows closed as you drive to safety. If you are unable to drive your vehicle, get on the floor of your vehicle and cover yourself with blankets. Smoke and sparks may enter the vehicle, but it’s important to know that gas tanks rarely explode.
8. What should I do if I’m outdoors?
If you are outdoors when a wildfire strikes, move as far from any fuel areas as possible. Try to cover yourself with any materials you can find to deflect heat.
9. What equipment should I have?
If you live in a high-risk area for wildfires, you should have the FEMA and NOAA apps for fire warnings and alerts. Your home should be equipped with a ladder long enough to reach your roof, hoses, a bucket, a shovel and a rake.
If evacuating, bring a prepared emergency kit of supplies that includes a flashlight, batteries, first aid kit, food and water, medicine, cash and credit cards, and sturdy shoes.
If you are evacuating with pets, bring vaccination records, a carrier, a leash, and a muzzle if necessary.
10. What kind of insurance coverage should I have?
A standard homeowners’ policy covers damage and destruction caused by fire, and that includes wildfires. A standard business owner’s policy includes fire damage as well. Note that it is critical for homeowners and business owners living in high-risk areas to keep an up-to-date inventory of belongings in case disaster strikes.
Christine G. Barlow, CPCU is managing editor with FC&S, a resource for insurance coverage analysis. She may be reached a email@example.com. Danielle Ling is an editor with PropertyCasualty360.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.