June 24, 2021

How to Buy a California Dream House That Avoids the Nightmare of Wildfires

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It’s getting harder to buy a home in one of the spectacular natural settings of Southern California. Yes, you can find a beautiful house overlooking a windswept beach or set in a lush canyon. But the ever-increasing number of wildfires is making it difficult to get these homes insured.

Deserie Thigpen’s mission is to help families move into the California homes of their dreams. The vice president of western field operations for Vault Insurance is an expert in wildfire prevention. As such, she is uniquely suited to help Vault cover homes that other companies won’t. Below, Thigpen explains that there are four things she looks for when trying to identify houses that are relatively safe despite being located in a wildfire-prone area.

1. Defensible space

There should be a physical gap between the home and any area through which fire can move quickly. Unfortunately, that rules out many houses that are perched dramatically on a cliff overlooking the beach, because fire moves faster when it’s going uphill. (What they say is true: heat rises.) Similarly, try to buy a home that is set away from trees. And be careful about living too close to a wooded park or other area where conservation practices will prevent the clearing of flammable material. 

2. Non-incendiary landscaping

For years, Californians were told to conserve water by planting drought-resistant trees, like cypress, juniper, and oleander.  Preserve moisture, the experts added, by sprinkling bark mulch on the ground. 

The problem with those evergreens is they have low water content. Open them up and they are dead inside, all brown and oily. So in a wildfire, they are a catcher’s mitt for flying embers. They burst into flames like a six-week-old Christmas tree. Palm trees are nearly as bad.

It’s much better to landscape with succulents, like cactuses and aloe. These desert dwellers horde water, so they are not quick to burn. Ground is best covered in pebbles, like decomposed granite or volcanic rock.

If you do have trees, remove all the limbs until 10 feet above the ground and get rid of any flammable nearby grasses and shrubbery. 

3. Hardened home

Even if your home is well away from wildfire areas and your landscaping is nothing but granite and succulents, you’re still at risk because the wind can carry flaming embers hundreds, sometimes thousands of feet. Homes built after 2008 must conform to a code that mandates an arsenal of defenses. If you’re buying an older home, try to find one that incorporates as many of the code’s requirements as possible:

  • Roof and siding made of non-flammable material (not wood) 
  • Fire-resistant vents with screens to keep out embers
  • Double-paned glass in all windows 
  • Spark arrestors on the chimneys


One fire defense you should shy away from is roof sprinklers. They tend to suck water that is better used by the fire department and have the potential to cause a lot of water damage inside your home.

4. Regular maintenance

Keeping wildfire risk low means paying constant attention and removing any possible fuel that could lead a fire to your home: 

  • Keep ornamental grasses mowed and well irrigated.
  • Have your landscaper clean the roof and gutters weekly 
  • Trim trees so they aren’t dropping foliage on or near your home. 
  • Keep an eye on palm trees to remove dead fronds and dried thatch.
  • At the start of the wildfire season, move firewood well away from the house. When there’s snow on the ground, you can move it back to just outside your door.


To some, these guidelines may sound extreme. What is California living without palm trees and dramatic beach views? Thigpen says there’s usually a way to come up with a strategy that will let you enjoy the state’s natural beauty and also keep your family and home safe. 

If you have any questions about how to minimize the risk of wildfires, give Vault a call and we’ll help devise a plan that works for you.


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