A Guide for Arizona Homeowners Before, During, and After a Wildfire
A wet winter in Arizona, followed by a dry summer, has set the area up for a disastrous wildfire season. The Bush Fire in northwest Maricopa County, and the Bringham Fire in eastern Arizona, along with several other fires across the state, have homeowners looking for ways to protect their homes and communities from these potentially devastating blazes.
There are three factors that influence wildfire behavior: weather, topography, and fuel. While homeowners can’t control the speed or direction of the wind (weather), or the position of drainages and canyons (topography), they can control the fuel by making firewise decisions regarding landscaping and home building materials.
Yet, even with the most fastidious preparations, wildfires will occasionally force you to evacuate your home in search of safer temporary housing. When that happens, knowing your home and processions are covered, prepping what to grab, and understanding what to do once the fire passes can provide peace of mind during a scary situation.
Create a survivable space
A survivable space “is the modification of landscape design, fuels, and building materials that would make a home ignition caused by wildfire unlikely, without direct firefighter intervention.” Creating one is a homeowner’s most important pre-fire safety measure. When your neighbors or adjoining properties all create survivable spaces, their effectiveness is increased. Living with Wildfire Homeowners’ Firewise Guide for Arizona suggests you “Call your local county extension office, fire department or federal land management agency to learn how you can help play a role in making your community better able to survive wildfire.”
There are six areas you should focus on when creating a survivable space around your home.
- Remove, reduce, and relocate dead vegetation: Focus on removing any dead trees, shrubs, or vegetation on your property. Don’t forget to clear out debris from gutters. While a layer of pine needles or leaves can help control erosion, the layer should be no more than three inches deep. Combustible materials – like firewood or grass clippings – should be stored at least 30 feet uphill from your home.
- Break-up continuous vegetation: Dense and continuous vegetation can serve as an ongoing source of fuel for a wildfire. Homeowners should provide spacing between trees and plants. How much space you’ll need depends on the slope of your land: the steeper the slope, the greater the space between plantings. Homeowners’ Firewise Guide for Arizona gives a clear formula and guidelines for calculating the slope of your property and spacing various plants accordingly.
- Avoid ladder fuels: Ladder fuels are plants or materials that “can carry a fire burning in low-growing vegetation to taller vegetation.” Professional pruning or tree trimming may be required, and the recommended separation distance will vary based on vegetation type and the slope of your land.
- Keep landscaping close to your home lean and clean: The area that extends 30 feet from your home needs special attention. The vegetation in this area should be kept lean – there should be few flammable plants and those that are kept should be healthy, and clean. There should be no dead plants or flammable materials.
- Don’t slack on maintenance: Setting up a survivable space around your home is the first step in fire prevention; maintaining the plantings and resulting debris is the next step. You will need to be diligent with raking leaves, pruning trees and shrubs, replacing flammable plantings with fire-resistant plants or hardscapes, and relocating combustible debris away from your home.
- Pick the right roofing materials: The National Fire Protection Association had developed three ratings (class A, B, or C) for fire-resistant roofing materials. Class A provides the best protection and includes roof coverings such as “asphalt fiberglass composition shingles, concrete and flat/barrel-shaped tiles.”
Update your homeowner’s insurance
While creating a survivable space around your home reduces the risk of damage due to wildfire, the possibility still exists. Having an updated and accurate homeowner’s insurance policy is essential to mitigate this risk.
Mike Gulla, director of underwriting at Hippo Insurance told the Daily Independent that most standard Arizona homeowner’s insurance policies will cover wildfires. However, he urges homeowners to “Take an active interest in reviewing your policy to confirm everything is accurate. Make sure that the reconstruction estimate completed by your insurance company includes accurate data points about your home (size, age, roof type, building materials, etc.).”
Many policies include coverage for additional living expenses “ALE.” This portion of your policy can, in some cases, cover living expenses should you be forced to relocate due to an evacuation order. You should read your coverage to fully understand your benefits and limits.
Plan for evacuation
While your homeowner’s insurance will cover the cost to rebuild your home and replace any possessions destroyed in the fire, there are certain items that are irreplaceable – family photos, memorabilia, and keepsakes – that should be gathered ahead of time so you can grab them quickly should you need to evacuate.
The Homeowners’ Firewise Guide for Arizona lists “The Five P’s of Immediate Evacuation” as guidance for what to grab if you’re facing evacuation orders.
- People and Pets
- Papers (your important documents)
- Pictures (irreplaceable items)
- Personal computer
Know your escape route
Homeowners should plan their escape route based on the direction the wildfire is moving. During COVID-19, extra planning should focus on making sure local roads, restaurants, and hotels are open and operating with regular hours. Call ahead to check all the stops on your planned route.
It is safest to evacuate your home during the notification or advisory phase of an evacuation process. Changing winds and weather can cause fire conditions to rapidly escalate leading to closed roads and an immediate threat to your property and your life.
Protect your home
If a wildfire is drawing near, there are still things you can do to limit the spread of the fire should it reach your home. You should move all flammable furniture to the center of your home, close shutters or blinds, close your fireplace or damper, and shut all doors.
Contact your insurance
Once it’s been determined that it is safe to return to your home, Gulla recommends homeowners “Contact your home insurance provider to report your losses, being as specific as possible about when and where damage has occurred.” Ask your insurer about specific filing requirements before you throw anything away.
Follow the guidelines your insurer gives you for filing a claim. This may include an inventory of the damage with photo and/or video evidence to back it up.
Request a report with the fire department
You can and should request a fire report from your local fire department. A typical fire investigation report will include the date of the fire, when the fire department arrived, an estimation of losses, and the cause of the fire, among other things. This information can be used to support your insurance claim.
Contact your mortgage lender or landlord
You will still have to pay your mortgage, even if your house has burned down. Your insurance policy, which is typically required by lenders, should provide you with enough ALE to find temporary housing while still making your regular monthly payments. Letting your lender know that your home has been extensively damaged due to a wildfire can help release funds from your insurance policy quicker.
Living amidst Arizona’s beauty comes with a price. Wildfires are a reality of this region, and while they can never be completely avoided, appropriate planning can help keep you and your home safe.