The Department of Homeland Security set fire to a house in Richburg, South Carolina yesterday to prove a point about how simple practices can make your home more resilient to wildfires – part of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Wildfire Ignition Resistant Home Design (WIRHD) program.
A full-scale 1,200 square foot, one-story home was subjected to wind-blown embers, which quickly ignited mulch in the gardens around the house and pine needle and leaf debris in the gutters. Within minutes, many portions of the structure itself were engulfed in flames.
DHS and its partners in the project – the Savannah River National Laboratory, the U.S. Forest Service and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) – conducted this test to demonstrate differences in the ignition potential of various construction techniques, building materials, and landscaping practices.
Wildfires are common occurrences. According to Forest Service statistics, there have been more than 10,000 wildfires in the United States this year and hundreds of homes have been lost. But the tragedy of losing a home to wildfire can be preventable. Simple measures can be taken to increase a home’s resilience, and most of them are either free or inexpensive, such as keeping gutters clear and avoiding using flammable materials, such as pine straw, in garden beds close to the home.
The IBHS facility is unique in its ability to replicate the conditions of an actual wildfire on a full-scale structure – it’s built on a turntable so all of the materials can be exposed to the ember storm.
The results of the demonstration will be combined in a tool for homeowners evaluate their own homes for resilience to wildfires.
Contrary to what most people believe, it is not the heat and flames of a wildfire that provide the greatest threat, it’s the wind-blown embers. Firefighters frequently find homes that are completely consumed by fire while nearby vegetation is left untouched. That’s because wind-blown embers found combustible materials on or near the home.
DHS got closely involved in this issue following the 2007 wildfires in Southern California. The Forest Service and the firefighter community asked for help in understanding the behavior of wildfires, and demonstrations like this one illustrate how modifications to construction and landscaping design and materials can minimize the damage to homes and businesses – and save lives.