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Indy Explains: How to prepare your home for wildfire season

Northern Nevada is already seeing flames consume acres of land in early June. State Forester Kacey KC has tips on how to stay safe during fire season.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
EnvironmentHousing
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The good news?

Nevada’s last two summers have been relatively free from wildfire.

The bad news?

Two wet years and flames already burning acres in Washoe and Elko counties in early June have experts expecting 2024 to be a significant fire year for Nevada.

Wildfires in Nevada have doubled in the last 20 years, State Forester Kacey KC said in an interview. As large-scale fires have become more frequent, more people may be affected by forced evacuation, home loss and poor air quality conditions. 

Though preparing for catastrophic fires can feel daunting, KC said homeowners can take precautions to educate themselves on fire prevention measures and fire terms.

“Just like fighting fire, we also have to prevent fire together,” KC said.

Here’s a look at how to protect your home in a fire, what to know when evacuating and understand fire terms:

How do I prevent wildfires?

KC said that wildfires will always be a reality to which Nevadans must adapt.

“We're never going to get rid of fire in these ecosystems. We're just going to have to figure out how to live with it,” KC said. 

Part of this is knowing how to prevent fires in the first place. KC said six out of every 10 fires in Nevada are human-caused. Though there have been arson-related wildfires in Nevada, some are caused unintentionally by humans.

KC recommended outdoor enthusiasts help prevent fires by keeping updated on what restrictions are in place for the area they live or are visiting. As of June 20, the Nevada Division of Forestry has released fire restrictions and prevention orders for every region in the state. 

Some orders prohibit starting campfires or discharging firearms in certain areas or not at all during red flag warnings — which are used to alert people when conditions such as high temperatures or strong winds pose a greater fire risk. People can keep up to date on red flag warnings on the National Weather Service website

KC said it is also important not to park hot vehicles on dried vegetation and make sure chains used for hauling trailers are tight enough so they don’t drag on the ground, causing sparks.

“There's little things that maybe people aren't even thinking about,” KC said.

The Division of Forestry’s Fire Adapted Nevada Partnership (FAN), which is made up of groups including homeowner associations, also offers education programs for communities looking to learn more about fire prevention. 

What steps can I take to prepare my home for wildfire season?

One of the biggest precautions homeowners can take against wildfires is creating a defensible space around their home. This means clearing anything flammable next to the structure, such as overgrown trees or gutters full of old leaves and pine needles. 

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, homeowners should create at least three protection zones around a structure.

The area within 30 feet of the house should be clear of any obviously combustible materials such as gasoline, oil or dry vegetation. Healthy trees and shrubs should be pruned to create at least 15 feet of space from the structure and between trees.

From 30 to 100 feet from the home, any dried vegetation should be replaced and “fuel breaks” or non-flammable paths such as driveways or gravel walkways should be created throughout this part of the property. Trees should be spaced apart so foliage is at least 6 to 10 feet from the ground.

The third zone begins 100 feet from the property and ends 200 feet away. Here, homeowners should remove underbrush and thin vegetation and trim trees to prevent them from touching canopies. Any firewood should reside in the third zone at least 100 feet from the structure.

If a home has a wood-burning stove, KC said it is important to ensure that the eaves and vents are closed so no embers can escape and cause a fire.

What if I need to evacuate?

Darcie Goodman Collins — the chief executive officer for Keep Tahoe Blue, an environmental advocacy group — was among the evacuees when the Caldor Fire was approaching South Lake Tahoe in 2021. Goodman Collins said if she had to go through the evacuation again, she would have left earlier. 

“I had a staff to about 18 [people] that live in Tahoe, and I encouraged them all to leave because the smoke was so bad, and I stayed because I felt this … obligation to be the last one standing, to hold down the fort for our work,” Goodman Collins said. “Just some sort of personal pride in doing that and being the last holdout.”

Goodman Collins did not lose her home or workplace in the Caldor Fire, but still regretted staying because of the horrific air quality.

“Had I known that the smoke was going to last for a week, I probably would have taken my husband and my animals and myself and gone somewhere with cleaner air,” she said.

Evacuation plans are created by local fire districts that operate through local governments. Though these entities instruct residents where to go and what to do in the case of a wildfire, people can also plan ahead by packing essential items in case of an emergency, knowing where the evacuation routes are in their neighborhood and making a plan with family members in case they get separated.

UNR has created a checklist for what to include in evacuation “go bags.” These include important documents such as bank statements, tax documents, insurance policies, birth certificates, licenses and medical records. 

Evacuees should also have essentials such as cash, cell phones, chargers and enough nonperishable food and water to last 72 hours (about one gallon of water per person per day). 

The extension also advises wearing cotton or wool long-sleeved shirts and pants, packing N95 masks, keeping the gas tank full and ensuring evacuees’ portable radios and flashlights are working.

How are fires fought?

Five interagency dispatch systems receive every call reporting a fire in Nevada. These dispatch centers also have fire cameras that help monitor if a fire has started and help detect where the fires are once they are reported.

“With the onset of fire cameras, it's made it a lot easier because not everybody driving down the road knows exactly where they are when they call a fire in,” KC said.

After an emergency call, these dispatch systems determine where the fire is and send the closest firefighters to respond. If authorities determine the flames are a wildfire, the emergency call is transferred to the state dispatch centers.

From there, the Nevada Division of Forestry begins reviewing what firefighting resources are available to them. This not only includes local, state and federal agencies but also international contractors, typically from Australia or Canada. 

Often, a firefighter experienced in Nevada terrain and vegetation will help guide firefighters and fire commanders who are not familiar with the region. 

When a wildfire is raging, reports will often say that a fire is contained or controlled by a certain percentage. KC said that if a fire is 50 percent contained, that means half of the fire will not continue to spread. If a fire is 50 percent controlled, that means half of the fire has been extinguished.

What to do if your home is lost or damaged in a fire

Homeowner insurance is a prerequisite for almost all mortgages, so most homeowners have insurance policies on their houses. However, as wildfires become more frequent and pose a greater risk for insurers, finding affordable or viable policies is becoming more difficult.

The Nevada Division of Insurance released a lookup tool to help homeowners see what insurance companies are accepting applications in their ZIP codes. The insurance division’s representatives will also Incline Village on June 28 for a town hall meeting to discuss rising insurance costs.

If a home is destroyed or damaged by fire, smoke or water, the United States Fire Administration recommends calling the home insurance company first. The insurance company will assess the damages to the house and anything that may have been damaged inside it. 

Homeowners who lost their homes and do not have insurance should reach out to local aid groups for assistance, the agency said.

Regardless of whether the home is insured, people whose homes have been damaged or destroyed in a wildfire will likely have a time of adjustment and should make alternate living arrangements. If they wish to reenter the home, they should contact their local fire department beforehand to ensure it is safe. 

If any money was damaged in the fire, but is still more than half intact, it can be taken to a Federal Reserve office in exchange for complete bills. If any documents or credit or debit cards were destroyed, residents should contact the corresponding agencies for replacements.

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