Wildfire Corner: Be Ember Aware!

Flamable dry plant matter
Dried plant matter and the peat moss often found in hanging baskets are extremely flammable. Photo: Guy Gifford

It is time to go on vacation but before you leave, ask yourself: Will my home survive a wildfire? I’ll share with you some simple things you can do right before you go on vacation to decrease the chance of your home burning should a fire occur in your neck of the woods while you’re away.

Embers, not flames, from wildfires are what ignites most of the homes that burn during a wildfire. Embers are small pieces of burning vegetation that are carried into the air and can often land over a mile away. Another way to look at embers is as matches falling from the sky. So what can a homeowner do before going on vacation, or at any time? Here are a few tricks that take less than 15 minutes to implement.

Focus on the Home Ignition Zone

When talking fire, we call the area around your home the Home Ignition Zone, which consists of three smaller zones. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on what is called the “Immediate Zone,” where ember awareness is critical. This zone is defined as the area your house sits on plus 5 feet on any side (click here to learn about the other parts of the home ignition zone).

In the Immediate Zone, it is very important to get rid of anything that a wandering ember could ignite. One way to think of this when looking around your Immediate Zone is: Could a single match get a fire started here? If the answer is yes, remove that material!

Some common items we see in the Immediate Zone that an ember could ignite are:

  • Newspaper in a recycle bin
  • Woodpiles
  • Cardboard
  • Dry leaves and needles
  • Door mats made from flammable material.
  • Wood decking (click here to learn more about wood decking)
  • Containers with dead plants (many hanging planters contain peat moss, which easily ignites)
  • Dead plants
  • Any other flammable material

While this list may seem long, the process of identifying and removing fire ignition hazards is easy: Simply walk around your house and look for anything that could catch fire if an ember landed on it. When you find something remove it.

Today I walked around my house and storage sheds and found a pair of cotton gloves, some 2x4s, and a pile of dry leaves. I put the gloves and 2x4s in the shed; the leaves I raked up and put in my compost bin (which is 30 feet from my house). Within 15 minutes I had completed a fire safety check for potential ember hazards around my house. Now I can leave knowing that I have reduced the chance of an ember burning my house down.

Are there more things you should do to protect your home from the next wildfire? There are lots of other tasks you could do in the other parts of the Home Ignition Zone, but they take longer than 15 minutes. Some tasks are better to do in different seasons.

Keep an eye out for the next installment of Wildfire Corner, where we will discuss the other ignition zones — the Intermediate Zone (5 to 30 feet from the home) and the Extended Zone (30 to 100 feet or more) — and the prevention goals for each in more detail. For now, make sure you check your Immediate Zone before you go on your summer vacation.

Whether it’s just for the weekend or a two-week road trip, always remember to do your fire safety check!

Check out this website for more information on the Be Ember Aware program.

By Guy Gifford, landowner assistance forester and fire prevention and Firewise coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, guy.gifford@dnr.wa.gov