SAFETY
& HEALTH
  Fire Safety Home Improvements
How to create fire safe landscaping and other improvements

Duane Friend
Natural Resources Management Educator for University of Illinois Extension

Over the past century, America's population has nearly tripled. Much of the growth has been in locations that were relatively untouched natural areas. This development has created a landscape that has come to be known as the wildland/urban interface. Development into forests, grasslands and farms has put lives, property and natural resources at risk from wildfires. Building or remodeling to make a fire resistant house, along with fire safe landscaping, can assist in protecting against these types of fires.

According to the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance, untreated wooden shake roofs are the number one cause of home losses to wildland fires. Replacing these roofs with metal, clay or fire resistant asphalt shingles will decrease the potential threat. All combustible materials such as over hanging branches, needles, and other debris should be removed from the roof periodically.

Siding materials, such as brick, concrete block, poured concrete, stucco or metal should be considered in high-risk locations. Siding material should be at least -inch thick and extend from the ground to the roofline. Windows are another consideration. Trees or brush should not be within 30 feet of windows. Double paned windows with metal blinds are a good choice. Avoid flammable curtains. Vent openings should be screened with -inch mesh. Constructing balcony and decks with fire resistant materials will decrease the risk of structure loss. Accumulated debris from below slotted deck surfaces should be removed regularly. Deck supports should be made of non-combustible materials or encased.

Electric power lines and tree branches should have a 10-foot clearance between them. Do not try to clear tree material that is within a tree length of the power line yourself- contact the local utility. Propane tanks should be at least 30 feet from a structure, and combustible material should be cleared at least 10 feet away from the tank.

Cover chimney outlets with wire screen that has a mesh size less than -inch. Outlet clearances for chimneys should be maintained a minimum of 24-inches from the roof peak and at least 35-inches from the outlet to the roof directly below.

Mobile homes should have non-combustible skirting, and tie downs used if the installation is mobile or semi-permanent.

One landscaping fire hazard is not having a firebreak between timber and the home. There should be at least a 30-foot buffer zone in place. The buffer zone can be created by replacing trees with grass, thinning the tree stand to construct a break between tree crowns, and pruning the remaining trees in the buffer zone to at least six to ten feet above ground. These landscape materials should be well watered during the growing season.

Avoid stair stepping vegetation that would allow a low burning fire to move up increasing taller plants to trees around the house. Prune low tree branches, and locate medium height trees away from taller trees. Additional landscape practices include keeping lawns trimmed and leaves raked.

Slope may also be concern. A fire on a slope can produce longer flames and travel much faster compared to fire on flat ground. The steeper the slopes are on the property the further out one should extend landscape modifications to the vegetation.

Other maintenance considerations involve keeping firewood stacked away from the house (this also lessens rodent and snake problems), keeping rain gutters free of leaves and needles, and screening any area that would allow debris to be blown under the house or into the attic. Home addresses should be easily seen by fire departments, which may mean posting signs at the end of long driveways.

The number one cause of forest fires in Illinois is from trash burning. Always use common sense when burning. Open burning is regulated by state and local laws. Check with a local fire department to know what, if any, open burning is allowed in your area.

For more information on this topic, visit the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance website at www.IFSA.org, or the Firewise Communities Web site at http://www.firewise.org.

 
More information

Duane Friend is a Natural Resources Management Educator for the University of Illinois Extension, Springfield Extension Center. Contact him at 217-782-6515 or e-mail friend@uiuc.edu