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Understanding Wildfires

Tips from The Hartford - November 2007

Wildfires in the United States are most common in the Western states, but they can happen anywhere. Businesses in Florida, Kentucky, and even Massachusetts have experienced wildfires and their aftermath. Most wildfires are started by careless human behavior, although lightning is another common ignition source.

There are three types of wildfires:

  • Surface Fires, the most common type, burn slowly along the forest floor. Surface fires kill or damage trees.
  • Ground Fires, usually sparked by lightning, burn in or below the forest floor, in the layer of humus down to the mineral soil.
  • Crown Fires, which move from treetop to treetop, are spread quickly by wind.

Once a wildfire starts, it is very difficult to control or extinguish it. The job of wild land firefighters is to fight the fire and protect natural resources, not protect homes and businesses. So it’s important that you take responsibility to help reduce your risk and protect your business. Remember, too, that in a wildfire situation, you cannot count on your local fire department being able to get to your business to put out a fire; they may already be working elsewhere or roads to and from your facility may be impassable.

Here are some steps you can take now to help protect your employees, buildings, equipment, inventory, vehicles, and other assets from injury and damage.

Evaluate Your Wildfire Risk

First, get information about wildfire activity in your area by talking to local fire officials or the forestry service.

Look at the topography of the area where your facilities are located and learn how this affects your risk. For example, if any of your buildings are on steep slopes, you will need to implement extra protective measures because fire moves more quickly uphill. Talk to your local fire department or forestry official for more information.

Learn about the prevailing winds and typical weather. When is the “dry season”? Is there a time of year when your area is more prone to wildfires? Keep informed about weather and other conditions that increase the likelihood of wildfire. The U.S. National Interagency Fire Center provides current information and guidance (www.nifc.gov).

Think about your water supply. Evaluate natural water supplies on your property, such as rivers or ponds. Consider how these might help keep fire away or be used to extinguish a fire. Water supplies in rural areas may be limited, especially in dry seasons or drought conditions.

The Institute for Business and Home Safety has categorized wildfire risk levels as follows:

Low Risk Areas Moderate Risk AreasHigh Risk Areas
Little or no history of nearby wildfires History of wildfires History of nearby wildfires
Humid climate, short dry season Climate includes a dry season less than 3 months Dry climate with a dry season more than 3 months
Flat terrain (no grades greater than 9%) Hilly terrain (grades average between 10% and 20%) Steep terrain (grades average over 20%)
Limited wild land Bordering a wild land with light brush, small trees or grass Forested wild land within 100 feet of buildings
Buildings not crowded by trees Trees are located in close proximity to buildings Trees are crowded within 30 feet of buildings
Landscape includes native vegetation Native vegetation may have been incorporated into the landscape Native vegetation has not been incorporated into the landscape
Manmade fuels at least 50 feet from buildings Manmade fuels are within 50 feet from buildings Manmade fuels are within 30 feet from buildings
Fire hydrant within 300 feet Fire hydrant within 500 feet No fire hydrants
Easy access for fire trucks Access for fire trucks Limited access for fire trucks

Once you have determined your wildfire risk, take steps to protect your employees, your property, and your business operations.

Include Wildfire Preparedness and Response in Your Emergency Preparedness Plan

If you have not already done so, prepare policies, procedures, and resources for preparation, response, and recovery from wildfire. Appoint an Emergency Coordinator and an Emergency Response Team. Keep employees, emergency responders, and community officials informed of your emergency preparedness plans so that affected individuals and organizations can act effectively should the need arise.

For each of your properties, develop a specific wildfire response plan. For example, consider how you would remove or protect employees, visitors, essential equipment and vehicles. Consider, too, how the potential loss of water, gas, or electricity would affect your ability to respond to a fire, to help your employees evacuate safely, and to protect your property.

Talk with your insurance agent to make sure your insurance policies are up to date and that they will provide adequate coverage in the event of a wildfire.

Talk with other business owners in the area about wildfire preparedness and response. Discuss how you might help each other before, during, and after a wildfire.

Build with Protection in Mind

In both new construction and existing buildings, take these steps to help reduce your fire risk:

  • Install automatic fire sprinklers in every building, and maintain them in working condition.
  • Install smoke alarms (detectors) in appropriate locations and maintain them in working condition..
  • Install a fire alarm which is connected to a central station or the local fire department.
  • Use special draperies and other window treatments that are treated with fire-retardant chemicals.
  • Install metal mesh screens on exterior vents, on attic openings, and around decks, floor openings, and eaves to help keep cinders from an outside fire from blowing in, and to help keep materials from an inside fire from blowing out and starting a new fire.
  • Make sure that emergency vehicles can get to your property and check to see that they have enough room to turn around and get out again. Most fire trucks need 12-foot wide roads with a 15-foot overhead clearance, and need at least a 45-foot turning radius. A slope with less than a 12% grade is preferred.
  • If your property is gated, make sure that the gates open inward and are wide enough to accommodate fire fighting equipment. The gate should be at least 30 feet off the main road so that emergency vehicles can pull all the way off the main road before stopping to open the gate. If the gate has a lock, make sure it is not so strong that emergency workers cannot break it open in an emergency.
  • Make sure that your street and number are clearly marked, with a large, easy-to-read, noncombustible sign, so that emergency workers can find your property quickly.

If you are planning new construction or renovation:

  • Check with local building and zoning officials. Your community or state may have regulations applying to the types of building materials you can use in fire-prone areas.
  • If possible, choose a flat building site. Fire spreads much more quickly on slopes.
  • Use fire-resistant or noncombustible materials such as stucco, tile, metal siding, brick, stone, or concrete tiles on roofs and the exterior structure.
  • If you use wood for decks, roofs, siding, or trim, be sure to treat it with a fire-retardant chemical listed by Underwriters Laboratories.
  • Do not use wood shakes or shingles on the roof. (These are prohibited in many communities because of their known ability to contribute to the rapid spread of fire.)
  • Use thick or double-paned, tempered safety glass in large windows and doors.
  • Install electrical lines underground if possible. This will protect them from damage which could cause a fire.

Good Grounds Maintenance

  • Maintain well-watered, well-pruned grounds. ?
  • Create a “safety zone” around your building.
    • Clear dry or dead brush, fallen trees, grass, and other debris within 50 feet of all buildings. For buildings on hills, clear within 200 feet.
    • If trees around your building are primarily deciduous (oak, maple, etc.), your safety zone should be at least 30 feet. If the trees are primarily coniferous (pine, fir, etc.), your safety zone should be at least 100 feet.
    • If your building is on a slope, you will need a bigger safety zone than on level ground, perhaps hundreds of feet. Consult local fire or forestry officials.
  • Hire a professional tree service to safely maintain your trees. Ask these professionals to:
    • Remove dead trees, especially those near buildings or other structures.
    • Thin the trees to create and maintain 15-foot clearance between the crowns of all the trees, to slow the spread of fire.
    • Remove limbs within 6-10 feet of the ground, to slow the spread of fire from ground to trees. Trim branches, limbs, and shrubs so they don’t touch or rub against electrical wires.
  • Ask your power company to remove branches that are near power lines. Never attempt to do this job yourself.

Reduce Your Fire Risk With Fire Safe Practices

Fire safety is important for every business, of course, but if you are in a wildfire area, you need to take extra steps to prevent fires from starting and spreading.

  • If you store combustible (e.g., pallets) or flammable (e.g., propane) materials outdoors, maintain an appropriate clearance from buildings, fences, etc., and from trees, shrubs, or other plants.
  • Use only appropriate listed or approved containers for flammable liquids.
  • If your building is on a slope:
    • Store small amounts of combustible and flammable materials uphill from buildings, so that if they do catch fire, their flames will not travel quickly uphill to the buildings.
    • If you must store large amounts of flammable or combustible materials on your property (such as propane or diesel tanks), site them at a safe distance lateral to your buildings, not up or down hill. If they should catch fire, flames could travel uphill to your buildings, and burning fuel or other flammable liquids could travel downhill to ignite other structures.
  • If you allow smoking at your business:
    • Consider establishing a smoke-free workplace. This will reduce your overall fire risk significantly.
    • Establish a smoking area, and allow smoking only in that area. If the smoking area is outdoors, locate it in a paved area where dropped smoking materials can not easily start a fire. Do not locate a smoking area near flammable or combustible materials.
    • If the smoking area is outdoors, consider moving it indoors during dry weather and wildfire season.
    • Provide appropriate containers for discarded smoking materials.
  • Do not allow trash to accumulate, indoors or outdoors. Provide enough appropriate fire-resistant waste containers, and empty them regularly.
  • Keep roofs and gutters clear of leaves, branches, pine needles, trash, or other debris that could fuel or spread a fire.
  • Keep chimneys and smokestacks clean and unobstructed. Install spark arresters on chimneys to help prevent sparks and embers from escaping.

Train Your Employees in Fire-Safe Behavior

  • Train your employees in general fire safety, especially for tasks with a high fire risk such as welding and cutting, fueling vehicles, working with flammable liquids, etc.
  • Teach employees about the importance of good housekeeping and grounds maintenance in preventing fires.
  • Have an adequate number of appropriate fire extinguishers, and maintain them properly.
  • Train key employees in when and how to use fire extinguishers.

Protect Your Employees

  • Establish an evacuation plan and keep it up to date.
  • Hold evacuation drills regularly to assist employees so they know who is in charge, and become familiar with evacuation routes and routines.
    • Consider when and how to evacuate employees if a wildfire threatens.
    • Make sure all employees can get out of the buildings, find shelter, and communicate with a responsible person. Plan primary and secondary exits from your buildings. Consider how employees will escape if doors or windows are blocked by an exterior fire.
    • Plan two evacuation routes out of your neighborhood. Consider how employees will evacuate on foot if roads are closed or impassable, such as if they are blocked by fire or by emergency personnel.

Know What to Do If a Wildfire Threatens

  • Contact emergency officials to report any outdoor fire. Fire is unpredictable and dangerous.
  • If you attempt to control a small fire until firefighters arrive, do not assume that you can extinguish it.
  • Turn on the radio or television to get the latest information.
  • Activate your emergency preparedness plan.
  • Keep lights on for visibility in smoky conditions. Distribute flashlights.
  • Keep employees informed of:
    • Wildfire conditions.
    • Company’s response.
    • Actions employees should take, or be prepared to take, and when they should act.
  • Be ready to evacuate when ordered to do so by local officials or if the fire draws near.
  • If ordered to evacuate, do so immediately. You may have only a few minutes to get to safety.
  • If you must evacuate, always follow evacuation routes indicated by local officials, even if they are different from your planned evacuation routes.. Because wildfires can change speed and direction quickly and unpredictably, your planned escape routes may be blocked.

After a Wildfire

  • Never return to your property until local officials tell you that it is safe to do so.
  • Be cautious when returning to a burned area. Hot spots can flare up without warning.
  • Be cautious of downed or damaged power lines and poles which can cause electrocutions or cause additional fires. Report electrical damage immediately to authorities.
  • Watch out for ash pits, which are holes full of hot ashes left by burned trees and stumps. Falling into an ash pit could cause serious burns and other injuries. If possible, cordon these off to prevent injuries.
  • As soon as you return, check roofs, attics and concealed spaces for hot spots, embers, or sparks, and extinguish these immediately. Continue checking for at least several hours.
  • Before entering a building, look for hazardous conditions, such as standing water (may be electrically charged if wires were damaged), sagging ceilings, damaged floors, etc.
  • Check the electricity. The fire may have tripped the main breaker. Contact your electric utility company for assistance in resetting it.
  • Carefully inspect heating systems. Engage a qualified professional to do this.. Repair or replace damaged or burned components or systems before using the system. Tanks, fittings, lines, valves, and filters may have been damaged, bent, warped, or stressed, making them unsafe to use.
  • Have the water tested before using it. Water systems can be damaged or contaminated by loss of pressure or other effects of the wildfire.
  • Watch out for burned trees or power poles, which may be have been weakened by the fire. Be aware that local wind patterns may change due to loss of trees in the fire, so damaged trees may fall when and where you least expect them.
  • As you clean up your property, work carefully.
    • Provide appropriate personal protective equipment, including appropriate respiratory protection, protective clothing, sturdy boots and gloves, etc.
    • Wet down ashes and other debris to minimize disturbing the dust and ash.
    • When handling hazardous materials, batteries, paints, damaged fuel containers, etc. always check with local authorities or professionals for assistance.

For More Information

  • American Red Cross Federal Emergency Management Agency Firewise Institute for Business and Home
  • Safety International Association of Emergency Managers National Fire Protection Association
  • National Interagency Fire Center National Weather Service
    • U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service
    • U.S. Fire Administration
    • U.S. Fire Service
    • U.S. Geological Survey Wildfirenews


  • Comeau, Ed. “Preventing Wildfire Meltdown.” NFPA Journal, September/October 2001, pp. 64-68.
  • “Firewise Construction Checklist.” Firewise, http://www.firewise.org/pubs/checklists/fwlistsz.pdf..[undated]
  • “Firewise Landscaping Checklist.” Firewise, http://www.firewise.org/pubs/checklists/fwlistsz.pdf .[undated]
  • “Talking About Disaster: Wildfire.” National Disaster Education Coalition. [undated]
  • “Standard for Protection of Life and Property from Wildfire” (NFPA 299). National Fire Protection Association Batterymarch Park, MA: National Fire Protection Association, c1997.
  • “Fire Safe Landscaping Can Save Your Home: A Factsheet on Rural Fire Safety and Prevention”. U.S. Fire Administration. Washington: USFA, 1999.
  • “Fire Safety Beyond the City Limits: A Factsheet on Rural Fire Safety and Prevention” U.S. Fire Administration Washington: USFA, 1999.
  • “Wildfire… Are You Prepared?” Washington, DC: American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States Fire Administration. [undated]
  • “Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Hazard Assessment Methodology.” National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Program.


The information provided in these materials is of a general nature, based on certain assumptions. The content of these materials may omit certain details and cannot be regarded as advice that would be applicable to all businesses. As such, this information is provided for informational purposes only. Readers seeking resolution of specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns regarding this topic should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. The background presented is not a substitute for a thorough loss control survey of your business or operations or an analysis of the legality or appropriateness of your business practices. The information provided should not be considered legal advice.

The Hartford does not warrant that the information of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) will be an appropriate legal or business practice. Further, The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation will result in compliance with any health, fire or safety standards or codes, or any local, state, or federal ordinance, regulation, statute or law including, but not limited to, any nationally recognized life, building or fire safety code or any state or federal privacy or employment law.) The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations, operations or practices are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Possession of these materials by a licensed insurance producer does not mean that such producer is an authorized agent of The Hartford. To ascertain whether a producer is a Hartford agent please contact your state’s Department of Insurance or The Hartford at 1-888-203-3823.

The NAW Service Corporation receives compensation from The Hartford for NAW's endorsement and promotion of the commercial insurance products and services of The Hartford. NAW and NAW Service Corporation are not licensed insurance producers or agents of The Hartford. All Hartford insurance products and services are sold through licensed producers or independent agents of The Hartford.

©2007 The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reprinted, transmitted or otherwise reproduced or disseminated by any means, including electronically.