Wildfires: What Homeowners Need to Know

The more you know and understand about the causes of wildfires, the better you can protect yourself, your family and your home from wildfire loss and injury. These ideas are from FEMA, the National Interagency Fire Center and Smokey the Bear.

What Are Wildfires?

There are three different classes of wildfires:

  • A "surface fire" is the most common type and burns along a forest floor, moving slowly and killing or damaging trees.
  • A "ground fire" usually starts from lightning strikes and burns on or below the forest floor in the human layer down to the mineral soil.
  • "Crown fires" spread rapidly by wind and move quickly by jumping along the tops of trees.

Where can I find out if I am at risk from wildfires?

  • Contact your local fire department, forestry service or other emergency response agencies for information on fire laws and wildfire risks in your area.

What causes wildfires?

  • Over four out of every five forest fires are started by people. Negligent human behavior, such as smoking in forested areas or improperly extinguishing campfires, causes of many forest fires.
  • Lightning can also cause forest fires.

What should I do if a wildfire threatens?

  • Listen regularly to local radio or television stations for updated emergency information and follow the instructions of local officials, including safest escape route, which may be different than you expect.
  • Also listen for air quality index reports. If the air quality is poor, this will affect those with asthma or other breathing or health conditions.
  • Be ready to leave. Back your car into the garage (leave the door open) or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape.
  • Leave your keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked.
  • Confine pets to one room and have their carriers and supplies ready to go.
  • If you're sure you have time, take steps to reduce the chance of your home catching fire or lessen the amount of damage from a nearby fire.
  • For more tips, read FEMA's "Are You Ready – Wildfires" article.

Protecting Your Property from Wildfires

WHN TIP: Is your home at risk of wildfires?

If you aren't sure if your house is at risk from wildfires, check with your local fire marshal, building official, city engineer, or planning and zoning administrator. They can tell you whether you are in a wildfire hazard area. Also, they usually can tell you how to protect yourself and your house and property from wildfires.


  1. Clear the area immediately surrounding your house of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation; yard debris; or other materials that burn easily.
  2. Remove vines from the walls of the home. Even live vines can spread fire quickly.
  3. Plant fire-resistant shrubs and trees in your safety zone and on the remainder of your property. Fire-resistant plants are less likely to catch and spread fire closer to your home. Ask your city what they recommend for your zone.
  4. Remove portions of any tree extending within 10 feet of the flue opening of any stove or chimney and branches from trees to height of 15 feet.
  5. Consider landscaping alternatives such as creating a rock garden.

Your Home

WHN TIP: Leave it to the professionals

You may be able to make some of these changes below yourself. But complicated or large-scale changes, those that affect the structure of your house, its electrical wiring, or plumbing should be carried out only by a professional contractor licensed to work in your state, county, or city.

  1. Use fire resistant building materials.
    • The roof and exterior structure of your dwelling should be constructed of non-combustible or fire resistant materials such as fire resistant roofing materials, tile, slate, sheet iron, aluminum, brick, or stone.
    • Wood siding, cedar shakes, exterior wood paneling, and other highly combustible materials should be treated with fire retardant chemicals.
  2. Regularly clean roof surfaces and gutters of pine needles, leaves, branches, etc., to avoid accumulation of flammable materials.
  3. Maintain a screen constructed of non-flammable material over the flue opening of every chimney or stovepipe. Mesh openings of the screen should not exceed 1/2 inch.
  4. Store gasoline in an approved safety can away from occupied buildings. Propane tanks should be far enough away from buildings for valves to be shut off in case of fire.
  5. All combustibles such as firewood, picnic tables, boats, etc. should be kept away from structures.

Emergency Plan for Wildfires

  1. Make sure that fire vehicles can get to your home. If wildfires threaten, firefighters will try to reduce damage around your home.
  2. Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display your name and address.
  3. Post fire emergency telephone numbers. Print out Your WHN Contact List. When wildfires threaten, contacting emergency officials as quickly as possible may reduce further damage.
  4. Plan two ways out of your neighborhood. Why? Your primary route may be blocked. But always follow the recommended evacuation route if identified.

Additional Resources

  1. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) – Wildfires If you are in a disaster declared wildfire area, you may be eligible for FEMA assistance. FEMA prepares the nation for hazards and manages federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident. FEMA also initiates proactive mitigation activities, trains first responders, and manages the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration.

  2. Living With Fire
    This site offers tips on what to do before and during a wildfire. The Living With Fire program is a collaborative effort of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, Nevada and USDA Forest Service, Nevada Insurance Council and other state departments.
  3. Smokey The Bear
    Only you can prevent forest fires. ‘Smokey Kids’ offers great games and forest fire info. The longest running public service campaign in US history, Smokey the Bear is known for his forest fire prevention message. Smokey is administed by the USDA Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the AD Council.

Updated: 5/2009