A worker installs an ember-resistant vent as part of the Montecito Fire Protection District’s 2021 Vent Retrofit pilot program.
A worker installs an ember-resistant vent as part of the Montecito Fire Protection District’s 2021 Vent Retrofit pilot program. (Montecito Fire Protection District courtesy photo)

The Montecito Fire Protection District installed the last of ember-resistant vents in nine local properties last week as part of the 2021 Vent Retrofit pilot program aimed at going beyond defensible space by hardening homes in Montecito.

“Oftentimes, people think that it’s this big flaming front that comes and burns down houses, and really, it’s not that. It’s the little things. Most commonly, it’s the vents,” said Maeve Juarez, a wildland fire specialist for the Montecito department. “It’s the embers that come through the vents. So, by upgrading to an ember-resistant vent, the chances of your home surviving a wildfire, with the inclusion of defensible space, are much higher.”

The fire department allocated budget funds to initiate a home-hardening assistance program. It installed the new vents in nine Montecito properties free of charge to the homeowners, according Christina Favuzzi, a spokeswoman for the department.

Montecito Fire began accepting applications from interested homeowners in March, and of the nine who applied, all were chosen because of their properties’ high level of potential impacts from a future wildfire, Favuzzi told Noozhawk.

“This is the first time that the Montecito Fire department has implemented any sort of structure-hardening grant,” Juarez said. “It’s such a big push right now in fire prevention to harden the homes, in addition to defensible space. I would anticipate seeing the project much bigger next year in the community of Montecito.”

During wildfires, embers can make their way into homes through vents and other crevices, and those embers may ignite combustible material inside the home, Favuzzi said. Those flying embers can potentially lead to a home being severely damaged or destroyed, she added.

As part of the program, installers placed in all nine properties newly designed vents that provide excellent ventilation while preventing flames and embers from entering the home, Favuzzi said.

The program was well received within the community, and Favuzzi said she expects that even more homeowners will apply next year.

Steve McGlothen, a Montecito resident for more than 25 years, said he was easily ready to participate in the program as he knows firsthand the importance of fire prevention after his home endured both the 2008 Tea Fire and the 2017 Thomas Fire, Favuzzi said.

The home of Steve McGlothen, a Montecito resident for more than 25 years, sustained damage in the 2017 Thomas Fire.

The home of Steve McGlothen, a Montecito resident for more than 25 years, sustained damage in the 2017 Thomas Fire. (Montecito Fire Protection District courtesy photo)

“There are some fires you can do nothing about. I was in the backcountry the day the Thomas Fire came over. There was nothing anyone could do to stop that fire there, but there are things you can do here at home to make it more difficult,” McGlothen said. “To be a part of the vent program was a no-brainer for me.”

With the extreme drought conditions, fire prevention strategies to protect homes and other structures are becoming even more critical, and there are various ways homeowners can implement those strategies on their own.

Many fire prevention strategies focus on defensible space, or the area around the perimeter of structures in the wildlands where flammable vegetation has been modified to reduce the potential for the structure to ignite, according to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard explains in a video that a home’s defensible space is divided into three zones. Zone zero, also called the ember-free zone, includes the home and the immediate area around the foundation of the home. It extends five feet to 30 feet out from the home and is called the lean, clean and green zone. Zone two extends from 30 feet to 100 feet from the home and is called the reduced fuel zone, Hazard said.

When conducting defensible space, Hazard said to focus on zone zero as the most important place to make improvements.

“Protection features built into your home and the first 5 feet extending from the foundation in zone zero are critical to preventing ignition from embers,” he said, adding that embers proceed the fire front and can blow up to two miles in advance.

Zone zero is a new zone recently added to California fire safety guidelines, County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig told Noozhawk.

“We’re really pushing that right now. We are asking not to have any vegetation, green or not, next to your house,” he said. “Clearing all of the fuels from around your house as much and as best you can is critical, and this is the time to do that.”

Homeowners should make sure to remove combustible debris from the top of roofs, and in particular, where the roof joins up to a wall, Hazard said, adding that the material can ignite from embers and cause the wall to catch fire.

“It’s very important to keep your roof clear of any flammable debris,” Hazard said, adding that the ends of tile roofs should be sealed to prevent the accumulation of debris that could be ignited by embers.

The UC Homeowner’s Wildfire Mitigation Guide says that the roofs are arguably the most vulnerable parts of the home.

“It represents a relatively large horizontal surface where embers can land. If your roof covering is made from combustible materials, or debris has accumulated at certain locations, the embers can ignite these materials,” the guide states. “While your home may only be subjected to the flaming front of the wildfire for a few minutes, your roof (and the rest of your house) can be subjected to wind-blown burning embers for a much longer period of time, as the wildfire approaches and burns through the area where you live.”

Homes with wood or shingle roofs are at particularly high risk of being destroyed during a wildfire, and if possible, roofs should be built with materials such as composition, metal or tile, according to Santa Barbara County Fire.

“Wood shingles are just very receptive fuel beds, and that’s on top of your house,” Hartwig told Noozhawk. “Sealing your vents and eaves into your house and clearing away some of the debris that accumulates in gutters or some of the seams in roofs is very helpful.”

Attic vents are particularly vulnerable to wind-blown embers and should be covered with a one-eighth-inch to one-fourth-inch metal mesh screen to prevent the embers from protruding into the attic and burning the home from the inside, according to Hazard. 

A new ember-resistant vent is on the left, and an old vent is on the right.

A new ember-resistant vent is on the left, and an old vent is on the right. (Montecito Fire Protection District courtesy photo)

Fiberglass or plastic mesh should not be used for the vents, because those materials can easily melt and burn, according to Montecito Fire. Vents should be protected in eaves and cornices with baffles to block the embers.

Eaves and soffits should be protected with ignition-resistant or non-combustible materials, such as exterior grade fire-retardant-treated wood lumber or fire-retardant-treated wood shakes and shingles.

Garage doors also should be inspected to make sure they are sealed enough to prevent embers from blowing under the door, and single-pane windows should be replaced with tempered glass, double-pane windows to protect from radiant impacts, Hazard said.

“Because of the importance of glass in the performance of a window in a wildfire, the most important thing you can do is install dual-pane windows,” the UC Homeowner’s Wildfire Mitigation Guide states. “With dual-pane windows, the outer pane often serves as a thermal shield and protects the inner pane. The inner pane is allowed to heat up more slowly, and uniformly, and therefore may not fail even if the outer pane does.”

Walls of the structure should be built or remodeled with ignition-resistant building materials such as stucco, fiber cement, wall siding, fire-retardant-treated wood or other approved materials, according to Montecito Fire.

Homeowners should avoid using wood chips or flammable ground cover in zone zero. Rock, mulch, flowerbeds and gardens can be used as ground cover for bare spaces and serve as effective firebreaks, according to County Fire.

There should not be anything flammable stored under an open deck, Hazard said. Decks within 10 feet of the building and patio covers should be built with ignition-resistant, non-combustible or other approved materials.

Chimneys and stovepipe outlets should be covered with a non-combustible metal screen with openings no smaller than a three-eighth-inch and no larger than a half-inch to prevent embers from escaping and igniting a fire, according to Montecito Fire.

Firewood should never be stored closer than 30 feet from the home, and especially not in zone zero, Hazard said.

Zone one should include green and hydrated landscaping, and homeowners should reduce the amount of vegetation in zone two to lower the severity of fire that can impact the home, Hazard said.

There are no “fire-proof” plants, but homeowners should select high-moisture plants that grow close to the ground and have a low sap or resin content, according to Montecito Fire. Homeowners are advised to use fire-retardant plant species that resist ignition, such as rockrose, ice plant and aloe. Fire-resistant shrubs include hedging roses, bush honeysuckles, currant, cotoneaster, sumac and shrub apples, and hardwood, maple, poplar and cherry trees are less flammable than pine, fire and conifer trees, according to Montecito Fire.

Click here for a list of undesirable plant choices.

Homeowners should consider using ignition-resistant or non-combustible fence materials such as chainlink, metal gates and heavy wooden fence sections to protect the home during a wildfire.

Driveways should be built and maintained in accordance with state and local codes to allow fire emergency vehicles to enter the home, and homeowners should consider maintaining access roads with a minimum of 10 feet of clearance on either side, allowing for two-way traffic, according to Montecito Fire.

Homeowners should consider having multiple garden hoses that are long enough to reach all areas of the home and other structures on the property.

“Very rarely are homes consumed by direct infringement of the flame. Very often it’s these embers that are reported to carry in these extreme conditions,” Hartwig said. “That’s what creates these leap-frogging fires, and it’s very important to make sure your home is protected against that.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Jade Martinez-Pogue

Jade Martinez-Pogue, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.