Safety & Security
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Protect Your Cabin from Wildfires

How outside sprinklers can help save your place

By Christy Heitger
Published: April 1, 2009
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During the summer of 2006, Mike McLain watched as wildfires swept dangerously close to his cabin, which is situated in Idaho’s heavily timbered Frank Church Wilderness region on the Salmon River. The area is so remote it cannot be accessed by roads, making it, as Mike notes, “a unique place to fight a fire.”

Mike, who owns both a private cabin and a rustic lodge where fishermen and white-water rafters stay, was uneasy with how close he came, both personally and professionally, to getting burned. But his unique location made for a unique solution. Within a few months of the 2006 fires, the forest service hired firefighters to teach Mike the proper way to “lay hose” (code for setting up sprinkler heads for a wildfire sprinkler system). This included learning how to create tall makeshift poles to hold sprinkler heads so that they could shoot water high and far into the air.

In August 2007, when the Raines/Rattlesnake fire got close enough to threaten his property, fire crews turned on the sprinklers, and Mike was amazed at the results.

“Around my lodge, 39,000 acres were lost within six hours,” says Mike. “But the flames jumped over my structure and across the river, leaving my place unscathed.”

Preventing Disaster

Cabin owners everywhere – especially those whose retreats are nestled in the woods – are learning how important it is to take proactive steps to protect their cabins from potential wildfires. This includes creating and maintaining a defensible space around the property by pruning trees, clearing debris from gutters, and removing brush and pine needles from around the home. Cabin owners with an exterior wildfire suppression system have that extra peace of mind.

Such a suppression system includes an array of sprinklers that’s connected to a water supply – often an existing lake, river or pool, but a cistern also can be implemented. The system may include sprinklers that attach to the roof, eaves and terrain around the cabin’s property and are designed to douse the exterior of the structure and surrounding landscape in order to saturate the ground and create a humidity barrier.

The amount of time a system will run depends on several factors. George Carlson, owner of Wildfire Protection Systems, says that those using lake water run for 24 hours continuously, producing the equivalent of two or more inches of precipitation over the protected area of approximately an acre (60 gallons per minute for 24 hours). A system pulling from a 17K gallon swimming pool, however, will run for about 11 hours and pump out a solution of a wetting agent and water (what’s known as “wet water”) using the water from the pool plus a 50-gallon drum of wetting agent.

The idea is to soak the property’s trees, bushes, grasses and vegetation, making them less susceptible to ignition, while lowering the temperature and increasing humidity.

“We’re creating a dome of humidity,” says George. “And in doing so we’re essentially changing the weather in a particular area.”

Turn It On, Then Pray

Homeowners across the country have witnessed firsthand the value of these systems.

In May 2007, when a massive fire broke out along the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais, Minn., Joe and Corrine Sierakowski, who own a log cabin in the area, turned on their sprinkler system and prayed. “The horror of that fire is beyond description,” recalls Corrine. “The heat was so intense, and the winds were so strong. We thought there was no way our home would survive.” When they returned to their property, they found the forest behind them was demolished, but not a single burn mark touched their cabin. “You could see how far the sprinklers reached,” says Corrine. “Because the property was green up to a certain spot and then just blackened.”

After watching two wildfires threaten their Valley Center, Calif., home – the second of which came within 30 feet of their doorstep – Dusty and Sheila Foster decided to install a wildfire sprinkler system in 2006. In October of 2007, flames from the Poomacha fire inched closer to their place. “Propane tanks across the street were exploding, and sparks were flying everywhere,” recalls Sheila, who started the system before evacuating the area. When they returned a few days later, they found their structure unharmed.

In July 1990, the Dude fire burned Betty and Hamilton McRae’s Payson, Ariz., vacation home to the ground; it wasn’t equipped with a sprinkler system. Because their land and the surrounding landscape was so charred, the family waited 15 years before rebuilding. When they finally erected their log home in 2005, they invested in an exterior sprinkler system. Though no wildfire has directly threatened the new home since it was built, the McRaes rest much easier knowing that they have taken multiple measures to protect their beloved home.

How To, How Much?

Systems can be purchased through national companies such as Wildfire Protection Systems and are typically installed by a professional. Costs vary, but a basic system runs from $7,500 to $11,500. A system that depends on water storage cisterns starts at a cost of $23,000 for 2,000 gallons of water storage – to a much higher cost depending on the amount of water being stored.

Taking a step up in sophistication, computer-monitored systems – which can be activated through the Internet, phone, photonic or temperature temperature sensors – are pricier than those that function manually.

A system should be maintained annually by the company that installs it. It’s also wise for the homeowner to test the system on a monthly basis to ensure that everything is working properly (e.g., check that the pump isn’t frozen, the nozzles aren’t clogged and that there are no leaks or other malfunctions).

Not for Everyone

To determine if an external sprinkler system is right for you, consider whether you have access to water sources, like a lake, river or pool. If not, can you afford to install a system with a cistern?

Also, if you’re a seasonal cabin owner, do you have someone who could start your system in your absence? Or can you afford to install one that can be activated remotely by cell phone or computer?

But don’t forget the basics. Michele Steinberg, community support manager for the national Firewise Communities program, says the number one thing cabin owners can do to improve their cabin’s chance of survival in a wildfire is to maintain their home ignition zone.

“Preparation ahead of time to keep the home free of flammable items and the lawn lean, green and clean is the key,” says Michele.

Ask any cabin owner who has been through a wildfire: Taking precautionary steps to protect your place from fire is well worth the cost and effort to do so.

“Unfortunately, in our lifetime, we will never again see the tall pine trees that once surrounded our property,” says Betty. “But now we have a metal roof. And we’ve planted low-growing bushes. We installed the sprinkler system – all of that matters. Should another wildfire hit, we’ve taken steps to ensure our home’s survival.”

Frequent contributor Christy Heitger is familiar with the concept of “a dome of humidity.” In her old cabin’s tiny bathroom, it only took two minutes in a steaming shower to create a dome of humidity.  

Other Ways to Protect Your Property

Beyond installing an exterior sprinkler system, there’s still a lot you can do to protect your vacation home: 

  • Stack firewood and place/store propane tanks at least 40 feet from your cabin.   
  • Within 5 feet of your home, use nonflammable landscaping material such as rock, annuals and perennials with high-moisture content.   
  • Throughout your yard, select low-growing plants with high-moisture content that are free of resins, oils or waxes that burn easily.   
  • Clear roof and gutters of debris – especially pine needles.   
  • Enclose open eaves and screen off soffits to deflect embers.   
  • Trim branches extending over roofs and remove branches within 15 feet of chimneys.   
  • Maintain a defensible space around your cabin by clearing away twigs, leaves, shrubs, dead grasses, and excess brush from the perimeter of all structures.   
  • Remove dead and diseased trees, and prune larger trees so the lowest limbs are 8-10 feet above the ground. Remove dead branches from all trees.   
  • Do not attach a wooden fence to your cabin.

Will you be building or adding on in the future?

Consider:

  • Using non-combustible construction materials such as stucco, brick, and cement siding.   
  • Choosing fire-resistant roofing material.
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