Prepare Now for Wildfires
Protect your property and health by taking these key measures
In the past 10 years, the average acreage in the U.S. burned annually by wildfires has exceeded the areas of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, according to data compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center. In addition to areas in the West and Southwest known for such conflagrations, massively destructive blazes are now devastating areas that don’t typically experience widespread wildfires, such as Hawaii, Canada, and Switzerland.
Indeed, as climate change-related droughts pop up in unexpected places, the risk of wildfire has become real to more people. Even those living far away from the actual blaze need to protect themselves from smoke traveling hundreds of miles. Here are steps you can take to keep safe that range from minimizing the health effects of a faraway fire to improvements that make your house and yard more fire-resistant. We start with strategies for escape in the event of an immediate fire emergency in your house or in your neighborhood.
Make an evacuation plan. Set up multiple means of communication in advance. Place your go bag where it’s easy to grab. If time permits before evacuating, close and lock windows and doors, and shut off utilities (see below).
Plan alternate evacuation routes. Trace several routes on paper maps and keep them in your vehicles and go bags. "You don’t want to have to figure that out at 2 in the morning as all hell is raining down on you," says MacAdam Lojowsky, whose family and pets survived the raging 2017’s North Bay Fire in Redwood Valley, Calif. Lojowsky says he and his wife immediately adapted to a new driving route when their first route was blocked by a blaze.
Keep your gas tank filled. "Never let it go below half a tank," Lojowsky advises.
Practice packing and fleeing. "Give yourself 30 minutes to leave," says David Ofwono, director of First on Compliance, an emergency preparedness consulting company based in California. "Sometimes a wildfire moves so fast, that’s all the time people have."
Learn to shut off your utilities. Label your water main, electrical box, and gas shutoff valves, and practice turning them off (see steps, below). Ready.gov, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, recommends contacting your gas utility to learn the specific steps to turning off the line, since gas meter configurations can differ. Don’t actually turn the gas line off in your prep sessions. "NEVER attempt to turn the gas back on yourself," Ready.gov says. "Only a qualified professional can turn it back on."
Have more than one escape from your home. Consider a Plan A, B, and C for every room in your house. Plan A is walking through a front or back door as you usually do. Plan B is your escape through a window when the door is blocked. Plan C is when fire or smoke prevents you from escaping a room. Get details on escape plans and more ways to prepare from the National Fire Protection Association.
Keep smoke detectors up to date. Change the units’ batteries every six months, test them monthly, and change the actual smoke detectors every 10 years. Place one, at minimum, on every floor of your home—and don’t forget the basement. Ideally, place them in hallways outside bedrooms, and in sleeping areas themselves. Check out CR’s ratings of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for top models.
Install escape ladders. Place them outside the windows of every upper-floor room.
Keep N95 masks available for going outside. If you’re smelling wildfire smoke, chances are that unhealthy microscopic smoke and soot particles are entering your lungs. Use an N95 mask, the same kind used to protect against the COVID-19 virus, to protect against smoky, sooty conditions. Read more about monitoring and improving air quality when wildfire smoke is entering your area.
Invest in an effective air purifier. The air purifiers that do well in Consumer Reports’ air-purifier tests proved in our labs to be good at filtering dust, smoke, and pollen from the air. Multiple studies of room air purifiers show that using HEPA filters results in reductions of 50 percent or higher in particulate matter. In one 2018 study of about 130 households, filtration resulted in about a 30 percent reduction in coarse particles, like dust. In a pinch, make an air purifier from a box fan and air filter.
Get the right HVAC air filter. The best HVAC air filters from CR’s tests did an excellent job of removing dust, pollen, and smoke from a room. Consumer Reports recommends looking for a filter with a high MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating, which signifies an air filter’s effectiveness. A MERV rating of 13 is the highest rating you’ll find for most of the popular residential HVAC filter sizes.
Clear away combustibles. Move flammable materials at least 5 feet from your home, decks, and overhangs. Move wood piles at least 30 feet away. Avoid outdoor furniture that can easily catch fire, such as wicker or hardwood. For more ideas, check out this guide on creating a defensible space around your property from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).
Keep the yard clean. Regularly remove fallen leaves, dead plants, and pine needles in gutters, under decking, and within 30 feet of your home. Trim tree branches to at least 10 feet from your chimney and other trees, and remove branches over your roof. Use stone or gravel mulches, not organic ones. Keep your grass cut to no higher than 4 inches.
Landscape with fire in mind. Plants with lots of waxes, oils, and resins are not good choices because they’re more likely to catch fire, CalFire says. And certain types of plants, such as those with a higher moisture content in the leaves, are better suited to resist fire. But where you place your plants—and how well you prune, maintain, and clean up dead and dry foliage—is just as important. "Landscaping practices . . . can have a greater impact on whether a plant ignites than does the type of plant it is," CalFire advises. Rather than choosing from a list of fire-resistant plants, check with a landscape contractor, experts at a local nursery, or your county’s cooperative extension service on what works best for your yard, the agency recommends.Hardscape right. When designing an outdoor landscape, create fire breaks out of gravel and stone walls.
Rethink building materials. Consider noncombustible siding materials, such as fiber cement, brick veneer, and stucco, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) recommends. For decks, opt for a metal-joist substructure. If you have a wood or vinyl fence, replace the section next to your house—at least 5 feet—with metal; fire often spreads from home to home via fences and decks, the IBHS says.
Upgrade the roof. This part of your house is your first line of protection against wind-borne embers. Make sure your new roofing material is labeled Class A—the highest fire-resistance rating. (Those materials can include asphalt shingles, metal sheets, and concrete or clay tiles.) Replacing a very old roof can help you save on your homeowners coverage, by the way; a PolicyGenius analysis found major insurers charging from 12 to 40 percent more for a 20-year-old roof vs. a new one. For the best options, check CR’s ratings of asphalt roofing shingles.
Tobie Stanger is a senior editor at Consumer Reports, where she has been helping readers shop wisely, save money, and avoid scams for more than 30 years. Most recently, her home- and shopping-related beats have included appliance and grocery stores, generators, homeowners and flood insurance, humidifiers, lawn mowers, and luggage—she also covers home improvement products like flooring, roofing, and siding. During off-hours, she works on her own fixer-upper and gets her hands dirty in the garden. Follow her on Twitter @TobieStanger.Make an evacuation plan. Plan alternate evacuation routes. Keep your gas tank filled. Practice packing and fleeing.Learn to shut off your utilities. Have more than one escape from your home.Keep smoke detectors up to date. Install escape ladders.Keep N95 masks available for going outside.Invest in an effective air purifier. Get the right HVAC air filter.Clear away combustibles.Keep the yard clean. Landscape with fire in mind.Hardscape right.Rethink building materials.Upgrade the roof.