Would You Return to Your House After a Wildfire?

Written by Posted On Thursday, 18 July 2019 10:18

Smokey Bear has just turned 75 and has never been in better shape. He continues to educate us and our children, repeating over and over again that “Only you can prevent wildfires!” But why is the Smokey Bear such a beloved character?


Wildfire Prevention campaigns have been running continuously since 1944, becoming the longest-ran public service advertising campaign in U.S. history. Generations of Americans have learned the basic rules from the Smokey Bear, yet fires remain a major issue in our country. Homeowners lose about $68,322 annually due to fire and lightning damage - it’s one of the most common insurance claims. Wildfires are the wreath of nature unleashed over us. According to National Geographic, 90% of wildfires are started by man, so, apparently, bears seem to know more about fire than we do. Uncontrolled campfires or the improper use of cigarettes are two of the main causes. We know that California is the first state that comes into your mind when thinking about wildfires, but we might disappoint you: 38 states are at risk of wildfires during drought conditions. Besides this, 4.5 million homes are in the path of the flames, 2 millions of them in California alone. In this article, we are going to explain to you what causes wildfires and how to minimize the damage.

How devastating are wildfires in the US?

looking at a wildfireAccording to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires started by humans spread over 2.8 million acres. Visitors and residents of California were responsible for 7,749 wildfires in 2018. There were 8,054 wildfires in California last year, but Texas took the first place with 10,541 reported events. Fires covered the largest surface in California, though - 1,823,153 acres, according to Insurance Information Institute. In fact, Camp Fire has been accounted for the deadliest wildfire in California's history. Last November, it claimed 81 lives, according to USA Today, and destroyed 18,421 structures, of which 13,503 residences. As absurd as it may seem, the Camp Fire engulfed the foothill town of Paradise.  

There were tears in heaven. Besides civilians, firefighters lost their lives trying to save others’ during a blaze, too. We lose 12 firefighters each year during wildland fire events. In 2017, flames took the lives of 3,400 people, of which, 400 died in highway vehicle fires. Eight firefighters died in outdoor blazes. Nationwide, a civilian died in a fire every 2 hours and 34 minutes, and a civilian died in a home fire every 3 hours and 20 minutes.

Over the past ten years, wildfires reduced $5.1 billion to ashes. In 2017, Americans suffered a loss of $23 billion in property damage due to fires. So, with so much money and time melted in flames, is it worth throwing good money after bad? Should you return to your house after a wildfire? We will find an answer below, but first, let’s understand this phenomenon. 

What causes wildfires?

massive wildfireHot, dry weather favors the spread of fire outdoors. Most wildfires are started unintentionally.  The dry vegetation of California needs only a small spark to ignite. That spark could come from a cigarette butt, from a flat tire, from the burning of debris, or even from a downed power line. Fortunately, more than two-thirds of losses have been insured. The cost of wildfire insurance in California has skyrocketed. Some people pay as much as $5,000 a year. A small spark starts a chain reaction, pushing up the cost of homeownership in California to unbearable heights. 

How to prevent wildfires?

prevent wildfiresAs we could see in the previous years, the number of wildfires is quite constant - according to the Congressional Research Service, in 2017 there have been about 71,500 fires spread over federal and nonfederal properties, 67,700 in 2016, and 68,200 in 2015. We can do little to prevent them. We cannot control the weather, but with so many statistics available, we can avoid areas prone to horrific acts of god and build our homes in safer regions.  

However, if you happen to live next to a natural sauna, you must know how to prevent wildfires. Here are a few rules you should apply to keep the flames away.


Advice for keeping the fire away:

  • The “5-30 rule” - maintain a “defensible space” between 5 and 30 feet. You may further split this into three zones: the structure ignition zone (closer to your home), the firebreak zone, and the reduced fuel zone. 
  • Remove dried branches that hang over your roof as well as dried shrubs or vegetation surrounding the house.
  • Remove dried leaves from the roof. Leaf litter is dangerous!
  • Mowing during the dry season should be performed in the higher humidity of the morning hours, before 10 a.m.
  • Beyond the 30 feet radius, keep only non-pyrophytic trees and shrubs. Leave enough space between them so that flames won’t leap between them. 
  • You may need more clear space around the house if it’s built on a slope. For example, you may need 200 feet of “reduced fuel zone” if your house sits above a 20% slope.
  • Escape routes must be planned in the “defensible space” and should not be flammable.


How to prevent wildfires when burning debris and dried vegetation in your backyard? Keep yourself and your neighbors safe abiding by these rules borrowed from Smokey Bear:

  • Don’t start a fire on a windy day!
  • You may need a permit to burn dried vegetation or it might even be prohibited. 
  • Create small manageable piles of debris.
  • Surround it with soil or gravel.
  • Don’t leave it unattended!
  • You need at least three times the height of the pile of vertical clearance.
  • Drawn the ash in water and stir it several times. Do the same when disposing of charcoal briquettes.
  • Campfires should not be started on a windy day, either, and as the fire starts to go out, smother it with dirt and sprinkle some water before you leave. 


Smokers should be very careful, also, when disposing of their cigarette butts or used matches. They must use an ashtray in their cars and if they are in a very dry area, always use a glass of water to put them out. Keep matches and lighters out of the reach of children!


What should you do during a wildfire?

fire safetyIf an evacuation order has been issued for your region, don’t hesitate to pack your emergency supply kit and leave, to avoid traffic congestion. Follow the routes recommended by officials but have several travel route options just in case one of them might be blocked. If you have to leave, stay calm.

  • Don’t leave sprinklers or a water hose running, as this might affect the critical water pressure. 
  • Fill some water buckets and leave them around the house.
  • Leave a ladder visible to provide easy access to the roof for firefighters.
  • Seal attic and ground vents.
  • Remove curtains and move flammable furniture to the center of the room.
  • Move propane BBQs away from your house.
  • Follow the news and keep in touch with your neighbors.
  • Tell someone where you go and how you can be reached.
  • Take your pets with you or rehome your pets until you return. Keep in mind that you could be away for more than three days. 
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants, cover your hair and your eyes as well. If there’s smoke, cover your nose as well. Wear 100% cotton, if possible.


Returning home after a wildfire

ruins after wildfireOfficials will communicate when is the right time to return home considering safety and accessibility. As soon as you arrive, check your home for smoldering fires and hidden embers. Don’t turn your gas on until you check the gas installation or see if the propane tanks are safe to use. Be aware that electricity might be down. If firefighters tried to protect your house, you might see some water damage


If the house is completely damaged after a wildland fire

Your insurance might cover some or all of the reconstruction costs, but you might find out later that you’ve been underinsured. Then, given the fact that you’re still in a wildfire-prone area, your premiums could increase. You may need a mobile home/RV to live in until the new house will be ready or you may have to rent an apartment through Airbnb or traditionally. You also have to factor in that cost in the total cost of rebuilding your home.

Now, if you purchased your house through a mortgage company or a bank, you might still owe a lot of money on it. You may wonder if you still need to pay your mortgage since the house is gone. The answer is yes. You are bound by the promissory note. You still owe money, but if you happen to live in California, we have good news for you. California wildfire victims are eligible for up to 12 months of mortgage forbearance. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac victims have the opportunity to stop making payments without being reported to a credit bureau. If your mortgage doesn’t qualify, talk to your lender. Most of them are open and willing to help you recover after a natural catastrophe and could tell you about insurance companies that sell affordable home insurance.  

If the house is intact after a wildfire

You have no idea how lucky you are! However, you still have to check the gas and propane tanks, as well as your electricity. All your memories are in their place, and you can continue to make new ones as if nothing has happened. 

Tips to avoid a house fire

Houses have become more and more intelligent lately, and construction companies try to keep up with the new smart home devices that flood the market. Most of them are meant to protect our homes against fire, so install fire and smoke detectors and buy some fire extinguishers. Keep at least one fire extinguisher under the kitchen sink, as most fires start in the kitchen! Don’t leave your stove unsupervised. Don't overlook the importance of a lightning rod, either. After a storm with a power outage, you may also want to check the electric cords. Sometimes, fires start from the inside of the walls.  Also, make sure your thermostats are working properly to avoid overheating.  

Wildfires are unpredictable, but over the years, maps of the most exposed regions have been published and are readily available. So, when you decide to stay in a fire-prone region, you have to know what the costs are. You could save a lot of money moving to a safer region. Contact a real estate agent to find out how much money you could save and start looking for a home away from natural hazards. 

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Theresa Hus


Theresa Hus is a member of the content team at The OFFICIAL Real Estate Agent Directory ® producing countless informative and trendy real estate articles monthly for RealEstateAgent.com and its many outlets.

Real Estate with a twist; that's how one could define Theresa's writing. With 16 years of experience in the industry, Theresa is all about coming up with topics that go beyond the basic real estate agent advice and home buyers/home sellers "how to" articles you see around. Her main goal with her writing is providing not only information that will make readers lives easier when dealing with real estate, but a good time through a fresh, fun and insightful read. While the site is called RealEstateAgent.com, Theresa likes to keep away from generic real estate agent content; her articles are all about thinking outside the box, stepping in the consumer's shoes, and warning readers of things they might've never thought of. Sometimes they're quirky and very specific - like an article questioning if you would live in a haunted house if the price was right - sometimes they just contemplate issues that no one bothers to talk about but are very important to a lot of people, like articles regarding the pros and cons of living near a highway or real estate agents specialized in homes for the disabled.

To do that in a responsible way, Theresa is constantly talking with the many nationwide real estate agents registered on The OFFICIAL Real Estate Agent Directory ®, researching the newest real estate niches, trends, and overall best practices.

Specific areas/topics that Theresa is able and willing to share her expertise and knowledge on include:

·         Real Estate Entertainment News

·         Trending Markets Around the United States

·         Advice Columns for Home Buyers or Home Sellers

·         Articles on How to Add Value to Your Home without Breaking the Bank


To contact Theresa, please email Theresa@realestateagent.com.


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