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2020 was a record year for wildfires in California with more than 9,900 incidents and over 4.2 million acres burned. Dry conditions throughout the Southwest are pointing toward another active wildfire season in 2021.

As many as 90% of wildfires in the United States are caused by people, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. Some are caused by unattended campfires, burning of debris, downed power lines, negligent discarding of cigarettes and intentional arson. In many cases, increasing wind-driven events cause fires to spread over greater distances creating exponential expansion of a wildfire. Fire spreads from hillsides to various points in the valleys creating spot fires with no relationship to the main wildfire body.

According to AccuWeather, the economic impact of the 2020 wildfires could cost between $130 billion and $150 billion. While it is often difficult to predict the track and severity of wildfires, construction businesses can actively work to protect their properties and employees from a wildfire in 10 steps:

  1. Create defensible space around business operations that is both horizontal and vertical (low-lying brush to bushes to low lying tree canopies to large tree canopies). The key is to disrupt continuity in the vertical dimension. Property should be divided into three zones around a building:
    • Zone 1. This zone is closest to a facility at 0 to 5 feet from the exterior wall of the building so it requires the most careful selection and intensive management of plants and materials. Install hard surfaces in this zone, such as a concrete walkway, or use noncombustible mulch products, such as rock mulch. Remember to regularly water lawns and plantings to prevent dry vegetation. 
    •  Zone 2. Maintain plants 5 to 30 feet from the building to help prevent fire from climbing (laddering) into the top portion of trees or shrubs and burning directly on the facility. Maintain trees and shrubs in well-spaced groupings and remove dead plant material and lower tree branches. 
    • Zone 3. Maintaining plants in Zone 3, approximately 30 to 100 feet from the building, can reduce the energy of wildfire, slowing its advance to a building. Tree and brush spacing should force any fire in the tops of the trees, brush or shrubs to drop to the ground.
  2. Reduce organic fuel by creating a Vegetation Maintenance Plan (VMP) to reduce ignition sources. If using plants around the building, select ones with low combustibility characteristics such as high moisture content, low oil or resin content, deep roots with thick heavy leaves and minimal production of dead vegetation. When developing a VMP, consult a landscape professional such as a forester, range manager or natural resource specialist.
  3. Use noncombustible materials for building signage and avoid materials such as wood, plastic and vinyl in construction projects as they will act as fuel to further the spread of fire. Select exterior wall cladding made of noncombustible siding materials such as concrete and brick. Wood or vinyl siding coming in contact with the wildfire will cause a fire to quickly spread throughout the facility. Ensure the start of siding is a minimum of 6 inches above the ground.
  4. Select windows that are dual-paned with tempered glass when selecting windows for projects. For operational windows, install screens to cover sections that can open. Windows should be closed when wildfire threatens.
  5. Select roof covers with a Class A fire rating based on testing to ASTM E108 or UL 790. Class A fire rating means that the building material is highly resistant to fire and does not spread flames quickly. Replace or repair shingles that are loose or missing to prevent embers from penetrating the siding of a facility or construction project. Select gutters and downspouts made of noncombustible materials such as aluminum.
  6. Install a minimum of 1/16” and maximum of 1/8” noncombustible mesh screening over all vents to prohibit wind-blown embers from entering a building. Regularly remove debris from roof and gutters, since it can easily be ignited by wind-blown embers.
  7.  Storage sheds, dumpsters, trailers and other combustibles should be kept a minimum of 30 feet from the business structures on the property. If relocation is not an option, consider creating a 10-foot space around these areas comprised of low combustible material such as rock or gravel. If the building is on a slope (wildfires burn up a slope faster than on flat land), combustible and flammable materials and liquids should be stored lateral to the building, not up or down hill. Consult industry and local laws for specific requirements.
  8. If the building is shared with other tenants, discuss with the local building department and a qualified contractor on fire separation options for the space. Establish a safe outdoor smoking area, such as a paved area, where dropped smoking materials will not start a fire. Provide appropriate containers for discarding smoking materials.
  9. Create an emergency plan for the business and employees, including emergency supply kits and an emergency evacuation plans with multiple exits points and a designated meeting place. Talk to local fire department about how to prepare, when to evacuate and what response to expect in the surrounding area in the event of a wildfire. 
  10. Whenever possible make use of multiple equipment storage yards with a diverse mix of equipment and material independently capable of sustaining short-to-mid-term operations. This strategy may increase the probability of sustaining a wildfire loss, but substantially decreases the exposure. Similarly, maintain accurate manifests for equipment and material stored at jobsites; these accounts will assist in pre-and-post wildfire operations planning.

Learn more about emergency preparedness planning on NFPA’s emergency planning webpage.

It is also a good time to review insurance policies to determine if additional coverage is needed. Wildfires are a rapidly growing challenge, and construction businesses need to prepare now to mitigate their risks from these devastating incidents.

Wildfires are almost impossible to prevent, but with careful planning and preparation, the effects of wildfires can be mitigated. Wildfires require a specific set of conditions to propagate. The key is confining these conditions. In protecting their property, businesses indirectly protect the property of others. Success can only be achieved through communal diligence.

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