The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) conducted the first-ever full-scale wildfire demonstration at the IBHS Research Center in South Carolina on March 24. The demonstration was part of a building science initiative designed to illustrate how easily some commonly used materials and items near or on houses can ignite from embers, and what homeowners can do to better protect their homes.
“Most people believe that it is the advancing line of flames during a wildfire that destroys homes,” said Julie Rochman, IBHS president and CEO. “Rather, it is embers or firebrands that create spot fires by igniting vegetation, debris and flammable materials that lead to ignition of the exterior of a house, as well as embersblown or drawn into buildings through gable vents, soffit ventsand other openings that can ignite a house from the inside. And our laboratory test vividly demonstrated just that.”
The testing is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Wildfire Ignition Resistant Home Design (WIRHD) Program, a science-based program led by the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) to provide community developers and homeowners the ability to assess and understand fire risks due to a nearby wildfire. Through this program, IBHS scientists and engineers have been working with U.S. Forest Service experts and SRNL scientists and engineers to develop beneficial wildfire research programs.
“In addition to working with scientists and researchers with expertise in the area of wildfire, IBHS also has been working very closely with the Fire Services community who are on the front lines of fighting these ravaging wildfires. It is critical that the work we do in the controlled environment of the IBHS Research Center test chamber is exactly what firefighters see and experience in the field,” Rochman said.
“IBHS’ wind-driven ember system replicates the wildfire ember shower environment observed during an actual wildland fire, both visually and the ember impact on the various components of structures and landscapes,” said Chief Will May, ret., Vice Chair – Wildland Fire Policy Committee, International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Research data collected from the wildfire testing will be used in the development of a computer-based tool that will allow the homeowner, working with first responders, an opportunity to create a virtual version of their own home and subject it to wildfire conditions. The results will provide recommendations the homeowner can act on to decrease their likelihood of wildfire ignitions.
“Taking steps to make your home more resistant to an ember attack is the most important thing you can do to reduce damage. Making a plan will allow you to leave when an evacuation is ordered and return home to little, if any, damage. A wildfire will pass by your property within a few minutes, but its exposure to embers can linger for an hour or more. Many times, firefighters have already left the area when ember-related fires ignite, leaving your home unprotected,” explained Rochman.
Many things you can do to protect your home, such as clearing gutters, sealing around doors and covering vents, cost less than $20. Bigger ticket items include replacing the roof and installing new windows. Use the guidelines below to help you make the best choices for wildfire protection when making renovations or performing maintenance on your home.
- Ensuring that you have a Class A rated roof is the most important aspect in making your home resistant to embers. If you have a combustible wood shake roof, replacing it with a Class A roof is the most important change you can make.
- Maintain a very carefully managed and maintained vegetation zone within a five-foot zone immediately adjacent to your home is critical. This zone is sometimes referred to as a “noncombustible” zone, which can be accomplished using rock mulch and flame-resistant vegetation. A lawn or low growing non-wood deciduous plants would also be options.
- When a wildfire is threatening, make sure your windows are closed.
- Vegetative debris in your gutter can be ignited by embers so clean your gutters regularly to keep debris out. The resulting fire will impinge at the roof edge, a potentially vulnerable area even for a Class A roof. Use metal angle flashing at the roof edge to protect the roof sheathing and fascia board.
- Make sure end-stops (bird-stops) are installed at the edge of your roof if your roof covering has a gap between it and the roof sheathing (for example, with a clay barrel tile roof). End- or bird-stops will limit entrance of birds and rodents that may make a nest, and prevent ember intrusion that could ignite the nesting material and wind-blown debris.
- Do not store combustible items, such as firewood and lumber, under your deck. Enclosing your deck is an effective means of reducing wildfire risk of ember penetration below the deck. However, if you do enclose your deck, make sure you allow for sufficient ventilation to avoid moisture-related fungal damage.
- Debris (and embers) can accumulate at the intersections between horizontal and vertical surfaces, such as at deck-to-siding and roof-to-siding (at a dormer). Keep these areas clear of vegetative debris as often as you clean your gutters. Use of metal angle flashing at these intersections can reduce wildfire risks. The use of non-combustible siding material is also recommended.
- Your garage door can be very “leaky” to embers. Since most people store combustibles in their garage, make sure your garage door is well sealed at the edges.