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Homeowners can keep a blaze at bay even as wildfire rages

Submitted By: Stephen Quarles

After serious wildfires, it can seem like flames leapfrogged through neighborhoods, leaving some homes unscathed alongside others that have been reduced to rubble. University of California scientists have found that this familiar site is not entirely random.


"You can do a lot to protect your house from a wildfire," said Stephen Quarles, the UC Cooperative Extension wood durability advisor.


With the right information, some advance planning and maintenance, homeowners can increase the chances their houses will be left standing after a wildfire.


"During a wildfire, hot embers can rain down on the neighborhood for hours before the relatively short time - sometimes no more than a few minutes - it takes for the blaze to blow by the home," Quarles said. "From years of observing the aftermath of fires and testing fire-resistant building materials, we have developed a much better understanding about what happens."


New construction will be required to have increased fire safety measures built in beginning in 2008. New guidelines for construction in areas under state jurisdiction go into effect on Jan. 1; they go into effect in fire hazard zones under local jurisdiction on July 1.


These laws govern only new construction, and presumably many of the homes that will be rebuilt after the devastating Southern California fires of fall 2007 will include the provisions, but Quarles said owners of existing homes may also wish to consider making changes to improve their homes' resistance to wildfire.


Six priority areas for protecting existing homes

Quarles has identified six priority areas for making changes to existing homes in fire hazard zones. He suggests homeowners start with the roof, the most vulnerable part of the house in a fire, and then continue in order with vents, vegetation, windows, decking and siding.

Ignition-resistant "Class A" and non-combustible roofs - such as concrete tile and asphalt composition shingles - have become the norm in California due to laws passed in the late 1990s that required all new homes and all roof replacements in very high fire hazard severity zones to be Class A. Nevertheless, there are still many older homes that do not have Class A roofs.


"The importance of the roof covering cannot be overstated," Quarles said. "If you haven't already, you should make an upgrade to a Class A roof your first priority."

However, he says, don't stop there. Because the roof and siding are dominant features on houses, many homeowners get a false sense of security when they install non-combustible roofs and siding.


"When I've looked at post-fire home losses, the thing that strikes me is the vast amount of non-combustible material on the ground," Quarles said. "That clearly illustrates that the fire-protection efforts some people may not think are as important as roofs and siding really are quite important. There's much more to do."

Keep fire from entering the home through vents

The second item on Quarles' priority list is vents. Vents for crawl spaces under homes or for attics are required by most building codes to prevent a build up of moisture, which can lead to mold growth and decay in building materials.


"We know that vents offer an easy entry point for burning embers and flames," Quarles said. "Embers that slip through attic vents can ignite debris and items stored there, and subsequently construction materials, setting the home ablaze from within."


Most building codes require vents be covered with a minimum ¼-inch mesh to minimize plugging and reduction in air movement.


"Quarter-inch mesh cannot stop embers and flames during wildfires," Quarles said. "This is an example of conflict in code preferences between building and fire officials. Smaller mesh screens would do a better job of keeping out fire and embers, but these same screens plug up more easily."


The importance of vents in wildfire resistance is leading to such innovations as the development of vents specially designed to limit ember intrusion while still allowing sufficient air flow for ventilation and construction designs and procedures that permit unvented attics to avoid moisture-related problems.


Quarles suggests homeowners frequently check their vents to make sure there is no buildup of debris, such as highly combustible dry leaves and pine needles. For added protection, they can make vent covers out of plywood or another solid material that can be quickly installed over vents when wildfire approaches.

Vegetation can work in your favor and against it

Next, look at vegetation, which can be both harmful and helpful in home fire protection. Plants close to the home, under eaves, in inside corners and near windows can be major fire hazards, but trees and shrubs farther away can serve as buffers against radiation, convective heat and flying embers.


"Trees might have a bad reputation because of the potential to spread fire in the crown, but that is seldom a hazard to structures," Quarles said.


In addition to where plants are located, Quarles suggests careful attention be given to plants' innate fire resistance. Bushy junipers and cedars, for example, can be a poor choice. Look for leggy plants with succulent leaves to landscape close to the house.

The smaller the plants the better, Quarles said, especially near windows and in the parts of the home designed to give the house architectural interest, such as inside corners, where heat builds up much faster than on open, flat sides. He stresses that plants should always be well maintained.


"Any plants near a house should be pruned, regularly watered and kept free of dead material within the branches and on the ground," Quarles said.

Attention to landscape and native vegetation is also an important component in creating defensible space around the home. Experts suggest the area 30 to 50 feet all around the home contain little or no combustible vegetation, no dead vegetation or flammable debris.


Windows are a vulnerable part of the home in fire hazard zones

The next priority should be windows. Research has shown that by far the most important factor in determining the vulnerability of windows in a wildfire is the glass, not the frame.

"It's a good idea to install dual-pane windows with tempered glass," Quarles said. "With dual pane windows, the outer pane protects the inner pane. The inner pane heats up more slowly and uniformly, and therefore may not break even though the outer pane does."


Tempered glass is much stronger than regular glass, so it provides more protection from breaking. The new chapter in the building code going into effect in 2008 requires at least one-pane to be tempered glass. Since the type of frame doesn't make much difference in a fire, it can be selected based on cost, aesthetics, energy efficiency or other factors.


As is the case for vents, homeowners can fabricate window covers out of ¾-inch plywood or another fire-resistant material. Cut them to size and mark them clearly so they can be installed quickly over windows before evacuating the home when a fire breaks out.

Decks and siding round out the top six priority areas for wildfire-resistance

Decks also deserve attention for reducing the fire hazards. An ignited deck endangers many portions of a structure and is often adjacent to large windows or sliding glass doors. The heat from a burning deck can cause the glass to break and permit the fire to enter the house, which means likely destruction.


"In general, the thicker the deck boards the better. Boards that are an inch thick or less release heat much faster and are a higher hazard," Quarles said. "Be mindful of the gaps between the boards and between the house and the decking. Combustible debris can build up in the gaps and corners, and flying embers can get lodged there and begin smoldering."


Quarles acknowledges that replacing deck boards can be expensive, but, he says, "It may be one of the best investments you can make."


For replacement, consider any material - plastic, plastic composite lumber, fire-retardant treated lumber for exterior use, or lumber - that passes the state test procedure approved by the California State Fire Marshal's office.


"There are a lot of composite decking products on the market. In fire tests conducted a few years ago, some resisted fire as well as solid wood, but none were better," Quarles said.


He said he expects new decking products to come on the market when the 2008 building code goes into effect. Currently, decking materials that meet the specifications of the new code are not commercially available, though they will be soon.

The sixth priority is siding. In research trials, good quality sheathing - which is installed underneath the siding - was a key to protecting the home's studs. A wide array of non-combustible siding can be installed over the sheathing - such as stucco or fiber-cement siding. Combustible siding - such as wood panels and clapboard - should be carefully inspected annually for gaps, making sure that they are filled with a high-quality caulk to prevent hot embers from taking up residence and beginning to burn.


Even beyond these six priority areas, there are other areas where measures may be taken to keep the house safer in a fire, such as fences, garages and gutters. For detailed information from the University of California Cooperative Extension on the fire protection priority areas and many other issues, see Quarles' Homeowners Wildfire Mitigation Guide. See also the UC Center for Fire Research and Outreach and an interactive Web site with information about actions to take before, during and after fires at


ANR fire map shows where fires are currently burning in California.

Installing and Using Child Safety Seats

Submitted By: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

To protect your child when riding in a motor vehicle, be sure you use the proper restraints for their age, height and weight. Restraints include:

* Infant carriers
* Convertible or forward-facing child safety seats
* Combination or belt positioning boosters seats
* Vehicle safety belts

The key to keeping your child safe is to use an age-appropriate child safety seat that is properly installed and used correctly.

Installing child safety seats

All child safety seats should be installed in the back seat of the vehicle. In a van, both the second and third rows can be used but always check the vehicle owner's manual. Because child safety seats come in many shapes and sizes, some seats are not compatible with certain vehicles. The best child safety seat for a family is the one that is easy to use for the parents or caregivers, fits in the vehicle's seats, is compatible with the vehicle's seat belts, and is the proper size for the child. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have specific recommendations for the use of child safety seats.

Infant carriers

Infant carriers are portable seats with a carrying handle. Maximum weights for infant carriers vary from 22 to 35 pounds. Refer to your child safety seat instruction manual for weight and height limits of your particular seat. This information can also be found on labels on the sides of the seat. Infant carriers always face the rear of the car and come with a three-point or a five-point harness. Some infant seats come with detachable bases that can be left secured into the vehicle so that you don't have to reinstall the seat every time. The carrier snaps in and out of the base. (Most bases also are adjustable to correctly recline the infant.)

Tips to help keep your baby safe

* For the best possible protection, keep your infant in the back seat in a rear-facing child safety seat as long as possible, up to the height or weight limit of the particular seat. At a minimum, keep your infant rear-facing to age 1 and at least 20 pounds. In a crash, if your child is riding forward-facing, an infant's spinal cord may stretch - which could result in serious injury or death. However, when your baby rides backwards, the entire body - head, neck and torso - is cradled by the back of the safety seat in a frontal crash, which is the most common type of crash.
* A rear-facing child safety seat must not be used in the front passenger seat of any vehicle equipped with a passenger-side air bag. In a crash, the airbag could cause death or serious injury from its impact against the child safety seat.
* In rear-facing child safety seats, the shoulder straps must be at or below your baby's shoulders. The harness must be snug and the retainer clip should be positioned at armpit level.
* The seat should be semi-reclined following the safety seat instructions. A 45-degree tilt is usually recommended. Some infant carriers come with an angle adjustment in the base to help achieve this angle. If needed, a towel can be rolled and placed under the front of the child safety seat (in the seat byte, or crack of the vehicle seat) to help adjust the angle. Some infant carriers have an angle indicator to show if you have the correct angle.
* Your baby is getting too tall for his rear-facing child safety seat when his head nears the top of the seat. There should be at least one inch between the top of the child's head and the top of the rear-facing child safety seat.


Convertible or forward-facing child safety seats

A convertible child safety seat, which can be used either rear or forward-facing, should remain rear-facing as long as possible up to the height or weight limit of the particular seat. At a minimum, keep your infant rear-facing to age 1 and at least 20 pounds. Convertible child safety seats are used in the rear-facing position to the maximum weight or height, then the seat is turned around to face forward for toddlers. When changing from rear-facing to forward-facing, parents or caregivers should read the child safety seat manual to learn how to adjust the shoulder straps correctly and how to route the seat belt properly. Your child should ride in a harnessed forward-facing child safety seat, in the back seat of the car, until reaching the weight or height limit of the seat. (Maximum weights for forward-facing child safety seats vary, from 40 pounds to 65 pounds and beyond.)

Tips to help keep your child safe

* In forward-facing child safety seats, the shoulder straps should be at or above your child's shoulders. The harness must be snug and the retainer clip should be at armpit level.
* You know your forward-facing child is getting too tall for his child safety seat when the top of his ears reach the top of the seat.
* Switch to a booster seat when your child reaches the weight or height limit of the forward-facing child safety seat, but is too small to fit properly in a vehicle safety belt.


Combination and belt positioning booster seats

Booster seats help raise your child so the vehicle's seat belt fits properly, on the hips and across the shoulder, away from the neck. Use a booster seat when your child outgrows his forward-facing seat with a harness, usually after 40 pounds or age 4. Many child safety seats now go to higher weight limits (65 pounds or more). It is recommended that your child reach the maximum harness height or weight before moving to a belt-positioning booster seat. Adult shoulder/lap belts don't fit children (without a booster seat) until they are 58 inches (4'9") tall. Most belt-positioning booster seats have a weight limit of 100 pounds or more.

* A high back booster with five-point harness is called a combination seat. The five-point harness can be used up to a weight of 40 pounds or more. The harness can then be removed and the seat becomes a belt-positioning booster seat.
* A belt-positioning booster seat is a booster seat that uses the vehicle's lap and shoulder belts to restrain the child.
* A high back belt-positioning booster seat should be used in vehicles without head support or head rests.
* A backless belt-positioning booster seat can be used if your vehicle has head supports.


Be sure your child safety seat is correctly installed

As many as four out of five child safety seats are improperly installed. Learn how to correct the most common mistakes in using child safety seats.

* Be sure the safety belt (or LATCH belt) is holding the seat in tightly and is in a locked mode (if necessary).
* Harness straps should be snug and routed correctly.
* Be sure the harness clip is at armpit level.
* Read both the child safety seat manual, as well as the vehicle owner's manual, for directions on how to install the child safety seat.
* Always put infants in the rear seat and never in front of an active air bag
* Keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible, or to the height or weight limit of the seat.


Do a quick safety seat check

As a parent or caregiver, you should carefully read the vehicle owner's manual and the instructions that come with the child safety seat to ensure proper installation and use of the seat. NHTSA recommends doing the following quick safety seat check:

* Is your child riding in the back seat? (The back seat is the safest place in a crash.)
* Is your child facing the correct way? (At a minimum, infants up to age 1 and 20 pounds should face the rear.)
* Is the child safety seat held tightly in place by the vehicle safety belt or LATCH system?
* Does the harness fit snugly around your child?
* If your child is less than 4'9" in height, is he/she in a belt positioning booster seat?
* Does your older child fit properly in the vehicle's safety belts? (The shoulder belt should rest over the shoulder and across the chest, and the lap belt should fit low and tight over the upper thighs. The child should be tall enough to sit with knees bent at the edge of the seat - at least 58 inches tall and 80 pounds.)


Replacing child safety seats after a crash

If your vehicle has been in a crash, you may need to replace the child safety seats and/or the vehicle safety belts. Check the child safety seat owner's manual for instructions on child safety seat replacement following a crash. Child safety seats may be replaced by insurance companies. Additional information on child safety seat replacement following a car crash can be found on NHTSA's website.

When child safety seats are recalled

Sometimes child safety seats are recalled for safety reasons. To check if your child safety seat has been recalled, call the seat's manufacturer, the Auto Safety Hot Line at 1-888-327-4236 or check NHTSA's website. If the child safety seat has been recalled, you will be instructed on how to repair it, or how to obtain parts to repair it.

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