Thaumas P. Ehr, Landscape Architect

Rural and Urban Homes need Safeguards for External Fires

 Whether you have a cabin near a national forest or a ranch-style home in the suburbs, our dry, hot weather puts it at risk for catching on fire.

That risk is heightened when the house next door is vacant, if your home sits close to another one or if you live next to an alley.

It’s not just wildfires that threaten homes from the outside.The hot exhaust from a car driving through an alley ignited the dry grass on the ground and sent that flame onto a wood fence and into a home. By the time the Fire Department has a chance to get to a fire that starts like that, your home could be engulfed, and the fire could even spread to the homes on either side of yours.

The good news is that most fires are preventable. Most of us think about being careful inside the home—turning off the stove when we’re finished cooking; not leaving candles unattended; and carefully putting out the embers in the fireplace, for example.

But fires can start outdoors, too. You can make your home far less likely to burn from the outside if you choose fire-resistant building materials and pay attention to the layout of your yard. As Fire Prevention Month winds down, here are a few tips for preventing a fire from starting on your property—or from spreading to your home if it starts at a neighbor’s place:

  • Create a 30-foot perimeter around your home where nothing touches it. Keep wild grass mowed short, and trim trees away from your siding and roof so a fast-moving ground fire can’t climb up a tree and spill into your attic.
  • Examine your yard for fire hazards and for possible pathways that a flame could take to easily get from the shed where you keep your lawnmower into your house.
  • If your house is next to an alley, find a way to keep debris and overgrown weeds out of it so they don’t catch on fire and send flames your way.
  • Widen your driveway to at least 12 feet so firefighters can get their equipment through in case of a fire.
  • When you build a shed or other outbuilding on your property, locate it at least 30 feet away from your house.
  • Re-landscape your lawn so it’s covered with high-moisture, drought-resistant plants. Don’t plant them too close to the house.
  • Stucco—Arizonians’ favorite—is noncombustible and a good choice for a cladding material because it’s designed to resist flames long enough for firefighters to arrive. So is fiber cement.
  • Box in your roof deck—and if you’re adding one, don’t build it from wood. Open decks can trap embers.
  • If your house sits close to the one next door, replace your windows with double- or triple-panel models. Intense heat from a fire will break the windows and speed the fire to the house next door, so the more layers, the better. An aside: Those windows are more energy-efficient than your old single-pane windows, and you could qualify for a federal tax credit.
  • Choose a non-combustible material like stone for your outside fences.
  • Install sprinklers inside your home. Keep your house safe from the outside in, and it will have a better chance of surviving a wildfire, a brush fire in your yard or the spreading flames from a neighbor’s house fire.