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Protect Your Business from Fires

After surviving two of the worst hurricanes in recent Florida history, businesses watched as wildfires raged in Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Lake and Mendocino Counties in California. Approximately 8,000 homes and businesses were lost, over a hundred thousand people were displaced, and sadly 42 people died. Seven of Napa Valley’s nearly 500 wineries were damaged or destroyed in the ensuing fires. Economic losses will be in the billions of dollars. Recovery will take years.

It reminded us of the many wildfires that have swept through Florida over recent years. Most of these destructive fires were preventable. The U.S. Forest Service has reported that roughly 9 out of 10 wildfires in the U.S. are started by people or are the result of careless human activities.

Wild fires often start in the wildland – urban interface or WUI. This is the area where homes and businesses are established near grasslands, wooded areas or forests. This type of community expansion is occurring throughout Florida’s rural areas. People and business in these WUI areas often expect local government to provide fire protection services just as they would for urban communities. Unfortunately, logistical problems prevent local fire protection agencies from quickly reaching outlying businesses and homes. This gives fires the chance to spread and become rapidly growing wildfires.

So what can businesses do to protect themselves and their employees from wildfires? Here are a few suggestions.

Sometimes business structures can be engineered and built to withstand wildfires without local intervention. When building or renovating, use fire resistant building materials as much as possible. Use concrete block, brick, or stone for exterior walls. Avoid having skylights and large windows. Radiant heat can melt plastic skylights and break large single pane windows allowing firebrands (burning embers) to enter the building. Smaller double pane tempered glass windows are best. All exterior doors should have at least a 30 minute fire rating. Roofs should be constructed of Class A asphalt / fiberglass shingles, sheet metal, terra cotta tile or concrete tile and never wood shake shingles. If used, soffits should be metal, never vinyl because the vinyl easily melts and allows firebrands to blow into roof areas. Install a wet sprinkler system with alarms that notify the local fire department when activated.

Establish a defensible zone around the building from 30 to 200 feet away from the building. Note: the distance will depend upon surrounding trees and vegetation and business operations. Break up or remove vegetation from around the structure. This gives firefighters room to safely work around the structure and reduces the likelihood of fire spreading from neighboring wooded areas to the structure or vice versa. Thin trees so that the crowns (tree tops) are at least 10 to 15 feet apart. Note: crown fires are the most dangerous types of wildfires. Remove all ladder fuels. Ladder fuels are vines or tall shrubs that can carry a ground fire up into tree tops. Remove fire fuels (wooden pallets stored outside for example) from the defensible zone as much as possible. Trim / remove overhanging tree branches to keep them at least 10 feet from the ground. Remove large groupings of plants or highly flammable plants that have resinous sap and waxy leaves like saw palmetto, yaupon, wax myrtle, and young pine and cedar trees. Instead of flammable mulch like pine straw, bark, or wood mulch, use lava stone or gravel around the structure or under landscaping. If landscaping within the defensible zone is desired, use less-flammable plant species like crape myrtle, sago palms, azalea, viburnum, and succulent plants. Locate all outside flammable fuel gas (propane) tanks and gasoline/diesel fuel tanks at least 50 feet from any structure. Keep fire extinguishers available anywhere fuel gas or flammable liquids are dispensed. Note: All fire extinguishers should be inspected annually by a fire service company and visually inspected at least monthly to insure that they are ready for use in case of a fire emergency. Have at least 100 feet of water hose connected to an outside water faucet.

In addition, train employees to fight incipient stage fires, these are small fires that are just beginning. Have an evacuation plan to get employees out of the building quickly and safety and meet at a pre-designated location. Make sure that exits and exit routes are clear and unobstructed. Exit and emergency lighting must be kept in working condition at all times. Keep flammable liquids / gases and highly combustible items away from exits and exit routes. Practice evacuation drills and test fire alarms periodically.

You can also have the local Fire Marshal perform an inspection of your business and you can contact the Florida Division of Forestry for additional resources. Finally, this article is not meant to be all inclusive, other fire protection measures should be considered depending on the nature of your business activity.