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Things to Think About in Case a Fire Visits Your Neighborhood

Jun 30, 2008
House preparation and brush clearance.

When I moved to Malibu a few years ago, one of the first things I thought about after I purchased a house was FIRE! Not only did I purchase a wood house, but it was surrounded by overhanging trees and brush.

After doing some research, I decided to repaint my house using a fire retardant paint additive. I chose a product called Flame-Stop III. There are other products on the market as well. Your State Fire Marshall's Office will have a list of products, which they rate and certify. Remember this is for outdoor paint use, not for treating wood for new construction.

The Flame-Stop retardant is added directly to the paint. Within the overall cost of approximately $15,000 for painting of my house, the Flame-Stop cost approximately $600. It had no effect on the color, viscosity or application of the paint.

In 2007, a wind-driven fire from downed power lines swept through Malibu. My closest neighbor's house burned to the ground. A church and two homes in the next block were also destroyed. In my front yard, the shrubbery, fence and my sliding driveway gate were destroyed. At the back of my property more than 20 Pepper, Olive, Pine and Coral trees were destroyed. My house survived, untouched. After hosing it down to remove ash and soot, it looked like new.

I was lucky, a fire crew was near my house, but I have to believe the retardant played some role in the miracle. Nothing will protect a structure from a direct hit from wind driven fire, but fire retardant paint can be helpful where embers lodge in the eaves or radiant heat threatens to cause combustion. If the painted wood actually catches on fire, it will not burn as readily.

As wildfires continue to consume whole neighborhoods and parts of cities - in October 2007 over 2,000 homes burned in Southern California - fire protection systems for homes are becoming more sophisticated. Today, there are additives which can be used on wood and other materials during the construction of new homes. It addition, self-contained external fire retardant systems are available. These systems can automatically cover a house and even douse a property line with a fire retardant gel or foam. One of these systems is offered by Firebreak Spray Systems. Further, certain home insurers (AIG -Private Client Group) offer private firefighting services to their clients, but now we are getting into mega-dollar expenditures.

In addition to painting with the retardant additive, I took the brush clearance seriously. The idea is to create a "defensible zone" around your house. A friend who is a wildland fire captain walked me around my house and showed me what to cut down or rip out.

People tend to ignore trees near their houses. Flames can reach 50 -100 feet, certainly high enough to ignite an entire tree. If it happens to be hanging near, or over, your roof, you can bet you are going to have burning branches coming down on your house. (A forty-foot high Pine tree at the end of my property was completely burned.) Yes, the trees are old and beautiful, but yes, they will burn. I cut down seven trees.

Further, follow your fire department's recommendations about brush clearance. You cannot just eyeball the brush and say, "Well, the fire can't get from there to here." Radiant heat is the problem. If your home is close enough to something which is burning, it may spontaneously burst into flames from radiated heat. You cannot eyeball that.

Finally, clear out your roof gutters, and don't store firewood or other flammable items next to your house. Remember, the idea is a "defensible space."
About the Author
Kurt Kamm writes novels about fires and firefighters. A resident of Malibu, he has lived through several wildland fires. He is a regular visitor at the fire camps, stations and training academies of L.A. County Fire Department and CalFire. To learn more about his novels, One Foot in the Black, and Red Flag Warning, visit Kurt Kamm.
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