Wildfires are getting worse, and they usually strike without much warning. The best way to prepare for these natural disasters is to make your home as fire-resistant as possible. Image source: Ready.gov
As climate change worsens, wildfires endanger more of the country’s real estate than ever before, so it’s essential that homeowners do everything they can to protect their homes.
Unfortunately, even with modern construction materials and building codes, it’s impossible to get a truly fireproof home. But, you can still give your house a fighting chance against fire by opting to build with non-combustible materials, picking a safe lot, landscaping with fire safety in mind, and routinely cleaning your property. At the very least, these practices will give you and your family enough time to evacuate in the event of a fire.
Whether you live in a fire-prone area like California or a relatively safe state like New York, we can help you preserve your home against an unpredictable inferno.
Read on to learn how to build a fire-resistant home or retrofit an older home for greater fire safety.
On this page
- Choose a safe build site
- Use fire-resistant building materials
- Consider your landscaping
- How to make an existing home more fire-resistant
Choose a safe build site
The land you build your home on can be just as important as the materials you build it out of. Picking a good spot isn’t as simple as choosing to live in a state with relatively few wildfires, though. The grade of the lot itself and the foliage around it also matters.
Fire moves faster uphill than it does across level ground, so the safest place to build a home is on a flat lot. Luckily, you can hire professionals to regrade a lot if you find one you love with a steep slope. Beyond the lot, you should make sure your home has as much space as possible between itself and any sheer ridges or hills that fire could quickly climb.
The wildlands that immediately surround your home are the next thing to consider. This isn’t a big concern if you’re building in a well-developed urban neighborhood, but if you’re building in a rural area or a new suburban development, you should ensure your lot is large enough to give your home plenty of space from wild foliage.
The natural undergrowth in the wildland is a smorgasbord of living and dead plants that can fuel a wildfire as it rages. If natural foliage grows too close to your home, it can become a threat. You want your property to extend far enough away from your home to give it a safe pocket of sparse plant life you own and can maintain. This pocket is often called a home’s “defensible space”.
Some states regulate how close homes can be built to wildland. For example, California requires residents to maintain 100 feet of defensible space. And while your state might not require it or you may be unable to buy a lot this big where you’re building, the closer you can get to a 100-foot perimeter of defensible space, the safer your home will be.
The finishing touch for your perimeter is a flame-resistant fence. Go with metal fencing instead of wooden options to give your home another line of defense against encroaching flames.
Use fire-resistant building materials
Once you have a fire-conscious lot selected, it’s time to think about the actual construction of your home. You want to avoid using highly flammable materials like untreated wood for your home’s frame and exterior as much as possible.
Use ICFs or FRTW for your home’s frame
Instead of building your home’s frame out of wood, use insulated concrete forms (ICFs) to create a stable, fire-resistant frame. ICFs are made out of a combination of polystyrene foam and concrete. To create an ICF frame, builders stack and connect foam panels like legos to shape a home’s shell then pour concrete into them to solidify the structure.
In general, ICF walls can withstand up to four hours of “extreme fire exposure”, while walls with wooden frames usually don’t last an hour. Not only are ICFs more fire-resistant than wooden frames, but they’re also more resistant to mold, they stand up better against extreme wind, and they can greatly increase your home’s energy efficiency because they create a better thermal pocket.
The only downside is that ICFs can be a little pricey. Building with ICFs can add somewhere between five to ten percent to your construction costs compared to wood. While the energy efficiency ICFs bring can help you recoup these costs down the road, wood is a more affordable option for people with limited building budgets.
If you do end up building with wood instead of ICFs, make sure you build with fire-retardant-treated wood (FRTW). FRTW is a type of construction wood that’s been steeped in chemicals to make it highly resistant to flames. FRTW isn’t as fire-resistant as ICFs, but it’s better than untreated wood.
Use Class A roofing materials
Your home’s roofing is just as important as, if not more important than, its frame. This is because wildfires spit up embers that travel on the wind, land on roofs up to five miles away, and ignite them. Essentially, a home with a flammable roof is vulnerable to fires it might never get close to.
To prevent one of these stray embers from burning your house down, avoid using wooden shingles and opt for fire-resistant roofing materials with Class A fire safety ratings. This includes metal roofing, high-end asphalt shingles, and concrete tiles.
It’s also important to design your roof with a steep grade so that cinders roll harmlessly off of it. Ideally, you can pitch your roof so that cinders will fall onto your driveway or walkway and avoid your yard or flower beds. Surrounding your home with gravel instead of plants and mulch can further ensure these cinders will smolder to nothing harmlessly.
Lastly, you should regularly clean out the gutters that line your eaves. Every few months, use a ladder to reach your gutters and remove dead leaves, pine needles, and other debris that could catch fire if it came into contact with an ember.
Use non-flammable siding
While they look beautiful, wooden and vinyl sidings are highly flammable and leave your house vulnerable to fires. Luckily, there are a lot of alternatives, so the right siding option will ultimately depend on your taste and your budget.
Stucco and stone are both fire-resistant siding options, but stone can be more than three times as expensive as stucco. Additionally, builders typically use the two materials for very different exterior styles. Other flame-resistant alternatives to wood siding include metal and brick, both of which can cost more than wood, though some metal options—like aluminum—are actually very affordable.
With all of these options, it’s possible to get siding that matches the style you’ve always wanted while staying within budget and making your exterior walls flame-resistant.
Use flame-resistant doors
Wooden doors are elegant and stately, but shelling out the money for ICFs and stone siding while using a wooden door for your entryway is like using cellophane as a windshield on a Ferrari. It gives fire an easy way into your home.
Instead of hardwood or laminate entryway doors, look for beautiful alternatives in fiberglass, iron, and steel. And, while you’re at it, you should use metal frames for your exterior doorways to ensure they’re also flame-resistant.
Get double-paned windows
Like flammable doors, flimsy windows permit fire to enter your home with little resistance. When it gets too hot (typically anywhere above 300° F), glass shatters, and this can happen very quickly during a wildfire. Once a window breaks open, there’s nothing between the flames and the home’s interior.
This makes double-paned windows essential for your home’s fire safety. Two panes of glass will hold up to fire longer than a single pane. If you’re really serious, you can also get windows made of tempered glass as they usually withstand much higher temperatures.
And, as with your doors, you should use metal framing for your windows instead of vinyl frames.
Add a fire protection system
Your home’s fire safety doesn’t end with the materials you build it from. As we said, there’s no such thing as a fireproof home, so a fire can still occur even if you’ve used nothing but the most fire-resistant materials for your home’s construction. This makes it essential to add a fire protection system to your home.
This can be as simple as placing smoke detectors throughout your home or as thorough as installing a sprinkler system with heat sensors. Some smart home technology can even be programmed to call the fire department for you if it detects a fire in your home.
And no fire alarm system is complete without a plan of what you should do if it goes off. This resource from the National Fire Protection Association can help you make an evacuation plan.
Consider your landscaping
Now that you know what materials to build your house out of, let’s talk landscaping. The trees, bushes, sheds, and grass you adorn your property with can pose a fire threat to your home if they aren’t spaced and maintained correctly.
As a general rule, trees should have at least 10 feet of space between them on a flat lot while bushes can be as close as twice their own height. If your lot isn’t flat, the distances between these plants should be greater, sometimes as wide as 30 feet.
As for outbuildings like sheds, greenhouses, and gazebos, they should be built far apart and a good distance from your home, especially if they’re made of wood or you’re using them to store combustible substances like gasoline, paint thinners, and firewood. There isn’t a set rule for how much space you should give your outbuildings, but the more, the better.
Lastly, you need to make sure every tree, bush, flowerbed, and square foot of grass on your property is well-watered and maintained. Dead plants burn much easier than living ones, so yellowed grass and parched trees will make your home more susceptible to fire. Keep your grounds green and healthy with regular watering, routine pruning, and prompt removal of any dead trees or bushes.
If you want to minimize this maintenance, we recommend xeriscaping. This is a type of landscaping that forgoes typical lawn adornments like sod and imported trees and instead uses only native plants that naturally survive on the rainwater your area gets. This alleviates the need for additional watering unless you’re in intense drought.
Additionally, xeriscaped lawns often use gravel for ground cover instead of grass or mulch, making them much more fire-safe than standard lawns.
How to make an existing home more fire-resistant
Now, what if you aren’t building a new home from the ground up? Is it possible to make a home that was built decades ago fire-resistant? Fortunately, the answer is yes.
Most of the recommendations we’ve made for a new build can also be applied to a retrofit. You can replace your old siding with nonflammable options, you can swap out your wooden shingles for stone tiles, and you can get more fire-resistant doors for your entryways. In fact, some of these jobs are easy enough that you can DIY them with just a little research.
Even intense jobs like regrading your lot, adding a sprinkler system, and fully xeriscaping your yard are possible for an older home. The only thing you can’t really do without starting over is replace your home’s wooden frame with ICFs. That would require tearing the house apart.
Protect your home from wildfires
Unfortunately, it looks like wildfires are only going to become more frequent and intense in the coming decades. But you can prepare yourself to weather these natural disasters by making your home as fire-resistant as possible. Whether you’re looking to build a new house or do an extensive remodel, using the fire-resistant materials and building practices we’ve mentioned can keep you, your family, and your property safer.