Within the last 15 years more than 89,000 structures - including homes and residences - were destroyed by wildfires. Wildfires themselves aren’t new, but over the last decade, they have been increasing in prevalence, particularly in areas that are prone to drought such as California. With the latest report on climate change predicting more heat and droughts, homeowners are increasingly looking for ways to protect their homes.
These trends are concerning on a number of levels. With many states reporting wildfires each year, as well as many homeowners wondering what they may be able to do to help reduce their risk and mitigate some of the enormous costs associated with rebuilding, home buyers may also start to seek homes that are built with wildfire danger prevention in mind.
As with many issues that can impact a vast number of people, a homeowner’s first step in protecting themself begins with making sure they are informed. That’s why we’ve taken information from a report by Headwaters Economics showing the number of structures that are reported to be destroyed by wildfires over the past 15 years, and used Fixr.com cost guides to see how much prevention methods cost. We also carried out interviews with John Bailey, Professor of Silviculture and Fire Management at Oregon State University, and Randy Cowling, President of WASP Manufacturing to get their valuable insight into the subject.
The Structural Damage Caused by Wildfire Year on Year
The graphic above shows how many structures (homes and businesses) have been destroyed by wildfire since 2005 to 2020, represented by the house icons that appear in red. The number of structures destroyed has been trending upwards, with the notable exception of 2019. In 2018 alone, more than 20,000 homes and businesses were destroyed by wildfires, with an additional nearly 18,000 destroyed in 2020.
As of August of 2021, 15 states have already reported wildfire activity with a combined 40,475 wildfires so far this year. Warmer and drier conditions are also predicted to continue through the remainder of the summer and into fall, which may result in increased wildfire activity for the rest of the year as well.
This begs the question: to what extent does building in fire prone areas contribute to the spread of the disaster? To gain an accurate understanding of this we spoke to Professor John Bailey at Oregon State University who shared that,
“This would be a minor contributor to wildfire spread (the big picture 100,000-acre landscape blow-ups) but a major contributor to spread and destruction within a community. Those first structures to start burning during an incident produce a lot of heat to ignite nearby structures (in higher density neighborhoods) and a lot of embers that go sailing downwind to other structures.”
The data shows an increased need for homeowners and builders to start considering protections needed for new builds and for homes being built in areas prone to wildfires or in nearby communities.
The States With Most Structures Destroyed by Wildfires
Wildfires can happen almost anywhere, but in the last 15 years, the majority of significant and destructive wildfires have occurred in 25 states. This graphic shows the number of structures destroyed by wildfires in each state over the past 15 years and which percentage they represent out of total structures destroyed in the United States. California leads this group by a significant amount with nearly 60,000 structures lost, which represents 67.2% of the total number of structures destroyed by wildfire in the last 15 years.
Other states with significant losses include Texas with 5,252 structures lost (5.9%), Oregon with 4,363 (4.9%), Colorado with 3,158 (3.5%), Washington with 2,559 (2.7%), Tennessee with 2,232 (2.5%), Oklahoma with 1,751 (1.9%), Montana with 1,209 (1.4%), Florida with 1,184 (1.3%), and New Mexico with 1,071 (1.2%). And while these states may have had the most total losses so far, they are not the only areas that are at risk. Homeowners in any rural or semi-rural area may want to help protect themselves to avoid becoming part of any further incident.
What Can Homeowners Do to Prepare Their Homes for Wildfires?
While homeowners may not be able to prevent wildfires from starting, there are things that can be done to help reduce some of the risk of damage. The NFPA has a checklist available to help homeowners start taking steps to protect their home. They recommend starting at the home itself and clearing it of any flammable debris such as cleaning gutters and clearing out landscaping. Having a professional clean out gutters has an average cost of $150 to $225. It is important to make sure the exterior is in good repair also to help prevent sparks, and move flammable material such as firewood or leaves away from the home.
When asked what are the most efficient techniques for how to protect a house from wildfire, Randy Cowling, President of WASP Manufacturing advises, “Special attention should be paid to roofing material, ventilation and the design and layout of surrounding gardens.” He highlights that, “The type of plantings is very important, eliminating cedars and other volatile shrubs and using plants and shrubs resistant to fire is of utmost importance. Prune limbs 10’ from the ground on existing trees and keep a space of at least 10’ between mature trees and new plantings.”
Cost to Make a House Fire-Resistant
Homeowners can also take steps to clad their home’s exterior in flame retardant materials. Fiber cement siding, steel siding, and metal roofing are all Class A rated materials that can help prevent combustion. Replacing siding has an average cost of $7,500 to $22,500, depending on the material, while replacing the roof with a metal roof can cost $15,000 to $25,000 on average. Authorities advise to avoid materials such as wood siding, which is flammable, and vinyl siding, which is both combustible and prone to spreading flames.
When considering both the costs and the timeline for rebuilding, however, these costs can be cheaper than the alternative.
Work as a Community to Help Prevent the Spread of Wildfire
There are also ways that homeowners and their communities can come together to help each other in combating wildfire. Bailey says that a homeowner can “have a major effect on a wildfire’s ability to spread within the community when/if they are that “first structure” – the one on the edge of town maybe, or a few houses in, that doesn’t catch fire because it is “FireWise”: clean roof and gutters, well-maintained landscaping, defensible space in one form or another.”
He continues to state that...
“If none of those houses catch fire with all the heat and embers flying, then the whole neighborhood and community is more likely to survive. It really speaks to the idea of neighbors talking about this stuff and helping each other – the most able helping others! Folks can work with their local Fire Departments on home improvements, coordinate with trash collectors for joint debris removal days …”
Being well-informed about the science and local environment helps everyone understand the best ways to prevent structural damage and fire-spread. Bailey advises, “support your local forest and rangeland managers who are trying to manage the land better outside the urban interface.”
Building Techniques to Protect Homes Against Wildfires
When building a new home, it’s possible to take even more steps to protect the building from the risk of wildfire. While things like flame retardant siding can help prevent combustion, making sure that the frame of the home is also flame retardant can help prevent even more damage. By building the frame with materials like concrete modular units (CMUs), insulated concrete forms (ICF), and steel framing, it is possible to create a home that is far more durable and able to withstand natural disasters.
Average costs per square foot (Materials only)
|CMU||$3 - $5/sq.ft.|
|Steel||$9 - $11/sq.ft.|
|ICF||$14 - $18/sq.ft.|
Homes built from one of these materials and clad in flame retardant materials like steel or fiber cement can help ensure that properties don't ignite. While there may be some damage to landscaping, the homes themselves can often withstand not only wildfires, but also earthquakes and other disasters more easily than a stick-built home.
Similarly to the parts of existing homes that should be replaced with more fire-proof materials, Cowling adds that when constructing a new home, “Composite shingle, metal, clay or cement tile roofing material with fire resistant exterior walls of stucco, stone or brick as opposed to vinyl siding” are the most efficient building materials to consider.
Additionally, with the reduced risk of flame and other issues, many insurance companies will give lower rates for homes made out of materials like ICF, and homes like this may also have lower energy rates, making them more affordable long term for homeowners, who may be more willing to pay upfront for these premiums.
The Role of Homeowners in Wildfire Damage Prevention
While wildfires can have many causes, the higher temperatures and drier climates caused by climate change are undoubtedly leading to the higher rates of wildfires in recent years. With the significant losses of property and life that can occur, it makes sense for homeowners and residents of these most affected areas to take steps to protect themselves and their properties. Whether it’s retrofitting an existing home to help make it less combustible, or building with non-combustible materials, these steps can go a long way toward lowering the costs associated with fire damage each year and keeping homeowners, families and belongings safer.