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Surviving in a 'suicide subdivision'

By   |  Posted in First-Time Homebuyers

More than 70,000 U.S. communities are at risk from wildfires, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Some communities are so dangerous they've earned the nickname "suicide subdivisions." If you're buying a home in one of these communities, it's your responsibility to understand the risks and take the appropriate action to try to reduce the chance of your home going up in flames.

Which states are at high risk?

While Texas had the most wildfires in 2012, 17 other states -- Alaska, Arkansas, California, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming -- also made the top 10 lists of the most wildfires and the largest number of acreage burned in 2012, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

In fact, almost every region of the U.S. is subject to at least some degree of wildfire risk, though some areas are riskier than others due to a history of fire and a longer dry season, says Pam Leschak of the U.S. Forest Service in Boise.

Building materials

Building materials can make a huge difference in whether a home survives a wildfire.

Of particular concern is the roof, where flying embers can land and ignite, says Steve Quarles, senior scientist at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, an insurance industry organization in Richburg, S.C., that researches ways to protect homes, businesses and communities from disaster-related losses.

"If the house has a wood-shake roof, the potential buyer should understand that should they buy that house, changing the roof should be an important thing for them to do," Quarles says.

Some homeowners associations prohibit the removal of wood-shake roofs, so if a home is within an association, it's a good idea to review the rules and regulations and find out whether a wood-shake roof can be replaced.

Another building material to avoid is vinyl siding, which Leschak says "just melts away" in a fire.

Building codes

California is the only state that has a statewide building code, adopted in 2008, for new construction in wildfire-risk areas.

"There isn't another state that has a statewide code," Quarles says, "but there are local jurisdictions that may have certain requirements."

If you're buying elsewhere, ask about local codes, how long they've been in effect and when the house was built.

Keeping your home safe

Keeping flammable materials away from the house is crucial to effective fire-fighting. That might mean trimming or removing trees, clearing brush, cleaning out rain gutters or replacing pine bark mulch with gravel. These and other fire-safe chores need to be done on a regular basis.

Just because vegetation around your home is green, doesn't mean it won't burn in a fire, Leschak says. "There are some times of the year when green is just a color. It can be green and dry at the same time, and some fuels, even though they're green, are still highly flammable."

A house that's at the top of a slope or ridge will be more vulnerable since fire tends to move up hills, Quarles says.

Following these tips might not help if your neighbors don't do the same. In some cases, "neighbors" might include a government agency or private foundation that owns a large tract of land. Quarles says homebuyers should find out where nearby wildlands are, who controls them and what steps, if any, are taken to mitigate wildfire risk.

Home insurance

If you buy a home that's near a wildfire-risk area, you'll be able to get homeowner insurance, but "it will be priced to reflect the risk," says Michael Barry, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

"Get enough dwelling protection coverage to rebuild in the event of a total loss," Barry says. "A common mistake is to look at the market value of the house, when you should look at how much it would cost to rebuild. Make sure that number is right because in the event of a total loss, that will be the maximum amount you'll receive from the insurer to rebuild your home."

Finally, a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) is a public document homeowners should obtain that addresses wildfire risk.

"If a community has that," Leschak says, "they are making progress to reducing the risk and adapting to wildfire."

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