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Embers, Wind and Fire: A Dangerous Mix

March 11, 2020

Homes in communities adjacent to a wildland area are at greater risk from wildfires. That risk comes from two sources, one of which might surprise you. There's the possibility of wildfire flames reaching the structure. There's also risk from a small but powerful source: embers.

Embers are burning pieces of airborne wood and/or vegetation produced by wildfires.

Also known as firebrands, embers can carry up to a mile in the wind, posing a major fire risk to structures in and around the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) calls ember storms the greatest danger to homes and businesses in the WUI.1 

How do embers contribute to wildfire risk?

Fire ignites when fuel, heat and oxygen mix in the correct proportions. In wildfires, this fuel consists of not only natural materials like trees and brush but also man-made items like homes, landscaping and fences.

Firebrands originating from wildfires can blow onto buildings in advance of approaching flames and even after the flames have passed. If these firebrands land on combustibles — such as mulch, leaves, firewood or deck furniture — they may start a spot fire. In the right conditions, a spot fire can grow quickly and ultimately cause the loss of not only the structure where it started but also other structures.

Embers can also enter buildings through vents and windows, making these places especially vulnerable and important to protect. 

If embers enter a building or land in an attic, they could cause the structure to burn from the inside out.   

 

Related:
Fire Safety Tips for Consumers

 

The attic of a home burningEmbers can carry as far as a mile in the wind, and when they get into an attic, they can start a fire.

Which areas around a home are most vulnerable to embers?

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has identified zones of fire vulnerability around a home that matter most when it comes to controlling the spread of wildfire.2  

Immediate zone: This includes the home and the area 0 to 5 feet from its furthest attached exterior point. This is the most important zone and the most vulnerable to embers.

Intermediate zone: This zone extends 5 to 30 feet from the furthest exterior point of the home and includes landscaping and hardscaping that can influence fire behavior.

Extended zone: This zone covers from 30 to 200 feet from the structure's furthest attached exterior point. It can include surrounding trees, sheds, play structures and accumulations of debris, all of which can fuel a fire and cause it to spread. 

 

Related:
Underwriting Property: A Guide to Fire, Wildfire and Earthquake Risk

 

How insurance professionals can help homeowners protect their property

The NFPA provides a variety of useful resources for homeowners that you, as a property insurance professional, can share with your customers. One resource is the Home Ignition Zone Checklist, which outlines steps homeowners can take to protect their houses from firebrands and to discourage fire from spreading.3 Items to consider in the Immediate zone include:

  • Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers.
  • Replace or repair any loose or missing roof tiles or shingles to prevent ember penetration.
  • Reduce embers that could pass through vents in the eaves by installing one-eighth inch metal mesh screening. 
  • Clean debris from exterior attic vents and install one-eighth inch metal mesh screening to reduce embers.
  • Repair or replace broken windows and damaged or loose window screens.
  • Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
  • Move any flammable materials away from wall exteriors — mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles — anything that can burn. 
  • Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches.

For more resources from the NFPA that you can share with customers, click here


Robert Ferrell, P.E. is WSRB’s Vice President of Public Protection. He leads the team that manages the insurance rating of cities, fire districts and building departments throughout Washington state. He has more than 25 years of experience in fire insurance rating.   

[1] Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, https://ibhs.org/wildfire/building-vulnerability-to-ember-exposure/

[2] National Fire Protection Association, https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire/Preparing-homes-for-wildfire

[3] National Fire Protection Association, https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire/Preparing-homes-for-wildfire 

Robert Ferrell, P.E. is WSRB’s Vice President of Public Protection. He leads the team that manages the insurance rating of cities, fire districts and building departments throughout Washington state. He has more than 25 years of experience in fire insurance rating.

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