Protecting Your Home in Wildfires With Fire-Smart Roofing
The tragic fires devastating our communities recently proved there’s no such thing as “wildfire season” in California any more. Wildfires can strike any time of year. They also now can strike almost any neighborhood. Homeowners used to be able to rest assured they lived “far enough” from open space, or that they had enough “defensible space” around their properties. The extreme behavior of fires like the Thomas and Woolsey Fires showed that even if you live blocks away from the nearest chaparral-covered hill, you need to be concerned and prepared.
Santa Ana winds combined with fire in extremely dry vegetation lead to fire embers (also called “fire brands”) that fly many hundreds of yards ahead of the main fire. These ignite spot fires that make the fire seem to move far faster than you expect. These ember also fly into neighborhoods and into the roofs or eaves of homes to start structural fires.
In this new era of the California mega-fire, every month is fire season, and every neighborhood is at fire risk.
Traditional fire codes and roofing options designed for other environments are built around fires within the home, not for wildfires spreading from outside. Other areas of the state and country with longer-burning fuels (such as forests) assume that some other part of the house will be the source of ignition.
Southern California chaparral area wildfires are unique. They burn extremely fast and hot. But they also burn their fuel quickly at any one place, while sparking off long-reaching wind-driven embers.
As a Ventura County or Los Angeles County homeowner, you have two choices: resign to a high risk of losing your home in the next firestorm that sweeps your area, or design and retrofit your home to give it its best shot. If you choose the second option, start with its first line of defense from wind-blown embers: the roof.
How Roofing Material Impacts Fire Risk
The first consideration for wildfire safety is what your roof is made of. Traditional wood shingles, popular in the rest of the country, are not preferred in Southern California. The City of Los Angeles, for example, has an outright ban on new wood roofs despite advances in fire-resistant treatment.
Spanish clay tile roofing materials are fire proof. But if not properly installed or maintained, the tile layers can create gaps and holes for embers to blow into. The hot embers can then ignite the underlayment or wood beneath.
Asphalt will eventually melt under long-burning embers and fire brands. Gravel and ballast can be overlaid onto the asphalt to create a fire-resistant shield. Exactly how deep and of what material the ballast should be can be calculated by your roofing contractor who is experienced in fire-prone Southern California.
Roofing Construction, Vents and Skylights Matter Too
Living in California’s climate requires our attic spaces to have lots of ventilation to keep houses cool. Well-designed ventilation can also reduce mold problems from built-up moisture. During a wildfire, however, each vent, louvre and soffit is a welcome mat for burning embers to enter your home.
How do you balance ventilation with ember risk? The vents can be covered with a fine metal mesh with small enough gaps that most embers can’t get past them to the more flammable materials below. Your roofer can also install automatic fire dampers to the vents that will seal shut the open spaces during fires.
Careful, professional workmanship is vital. There is nearly zero margin for error in roofing installation workmanship in fire-prone areas. Embers will inevitably find any gaps or cracks that exist from poor installation or ignored maintenance. The gusty Santa Ana winds that drive these fires will also pre-weaken any shoddy workmanship spots in your roof. Every improperly installed tile or foot of flashing can peel up to make room for embers to do their dirty work.
Protect Your Roof, and Help Your Roof Protect Your Home
Once your roof is ready for the next wildfire emergency with the topics above, here are a few other things you can do to make sure your home is wildfire ready, so your roof can do its job to protect your whole home.
- Defensible space: well-watered low-growing bushes or ground cover near walls, and no trees or taller shrubs that can overhang your roof. This will help to keep fire from going straight up into the eaves or fire-weakened branches falling onto and creating holes in your roof for fire brands to enter.
- Site layout with first responders in mind: make sure your driveway has sufficient access and escape routes for fire trucks. If a fire truck doesn’t have room to turn around to be able to escape, the firefighters won’t be safe while defending your home. Help them out by making sure they have room to maneuver.
- Window protection: metal roll-up doors can be tastefully installed in the eaves over large windows or sliding glass doors. These can be designed to automatically roll down when exposed to high heat, or you can manually lower them before evacuating. This prevents glass from breaking from heat or wind-driven debris and keep embers from directly igniting furnishings inside.
- Roof sprinklers: Sprinkler systems can be installed on the roof that can automatically start under high heat like interior ceiling fire sprinklers. These can put out small spot fires or douse embers that land on your roof before they ignite the structure. Generator and pumps to feed out of a pool or tank will be useful during the era of public safety power shutoffs.
- Move trash cans away from house: Don’t store trash cans right up against the walls. “Dumpster fires” are a meme for a reason. The flames will flick up into the eaves and quickly ignite the roof if the trash catches an ember.
- Solar roofs: by adding an additional smooth layer to your roof, rooftop solar panels can keep embers from landing on your roof.
Personal Safety Comes First
These tips and suggestions should be implemented before the next wildfire threatens your community. When fire breaks out, your and your family’s personal safety is most important. Remember “Ready – Set – Go” and be prepared – and willing – to leave immediately if mandatory evacuation orders are issued for your home.