How Homes Burn

Not all homes burned in wildfires burn the same way. Knowing the most frequent cause for home ignition can help you lower the risk that your house will burn in the next wildfire.

Related Links
Be Ember Aware
Fire Adapted Communities
Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety Wildfire Resources
California Wildfire Protection Building Construction


Flame Front

Recently there have been very extreme fires with large fire fronts and fire tornadoes that burn everything in their paths. Though these are dramatic events, they are not how the majority of homes burn. Forest thinning and prescribed fire projects around neighborhoods help to reduce the intensity of wildfires near homes.



The majority off homes that burn in wild fires burn when embers land on vulnerable areas of the house and landscape and start small fires. When no fire fighter is available to contain these small fires they grow and destroy the house. Residents can reduce their risk by improving their homes' ignition resistance and creating defensible space.


Radiant Heat

Homes can burn when the heat from a fire very nearby (such as a next door neighbor’s house burning) directly ignites vegetation, or siding or breaks windows allowing the fire to get into the house. Residents can reduce their risk by improving their homes' ignition resistance and creating defensible space.


How Forests Burn

In a forest where fires rarely happen fuel accumulates over time. There’s surface fuel (grass, logs, woody debris, brush), ladder fuel (shrubs, small trees), and tree crowns. The severity of fires that ignite in a forest can be reduced by removing and modifying fuels.

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Note: Fuels reduction involves removing surface fuels, especially pine needles around homes and woody debris in the forest; reducing shrubs and small trees that can act as ladders for fires to get into tree crowns; pruning large trees to make it more difficult for flames to reach into the crowns; removing some trees so that their crowns no longer touch.


Forest Fire Impacts

Forests burn at different severity depending on the fuel, weather and topography. Every fire usually burns in a mix of severities from low to high.

Related Links
Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership
Angora Fire Fuel Treatment Effectiveness Report
King Fire Burn Severity Impacts


Low Severity Fires burn mainly on the forest floor, consuming fuels and small trees and shrubs but not killing most of the mature trees on site. These fires help thin the forest and keep down fuels leading to a healthier and more resilient forest.


High Severity Fires kill most of the trees in the forest by burning through their canopies. The size and amount of high severity fires has been going steadily up in Lake Tahoe and throughout the Sierra Nevada.


Tools to Reduce Fire Severity

The goal of forest projects in the Tahoe basin is to reduce the severity of fires that may burn in the area, not to eliminate fire all together. This is done by thinning and prescribed fire.


Thinning involves reducing the number of small trees in the forest by cutting and removing them from the site with heavy equipment. When it is done by hand with chain saws, the small trees are usually piled and burned.


Prescribed Fires are set by forest managers during less flammable weather conditions and kept within control lines so that the fire is of low severity, consuming fuels that would otherwise burn at high severity during dangerous weather.

Note: These fuel reduction efforts have been shown to be successful at reducing height of flames and the number of trees killed by fires. However, residents still need to manage their vegetation and improve their homes' ignition resistance to avoid having their homes burn in fires.