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Moving sheds away from home reduces fire risk, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all

A firefighter stands and watches a shed burn. To determine how far away from homes sheds should be placed, NIST researchers burned sheds near target structures at varying distances.
R. Wilson
A firefighter stands and watches a shed burn. To determine how far away from homes sheds should be placed, NIST researchers burned sheds near target structures at varying distances.

New research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) shows that moving sheds farther away from homes is one way homeowners can reduce wildfire risk.

It makes sense that auxiliary structures on a property – whether they be sheds or gazebos – can fuel a fire. But researchers wanted to know how far these structures should be from homes in order to significantly reduce the risk of fire spreading from one structure to another.

Alexander Maranghides, a fire protection engineer at NIST, said the relationship between a building's exposure and the degree that it's fire-hardened with fire-resistant building materials "will ultimately determine if a house ignites and gets lost or doesn't.”

The team of engineers looked at several factors that could impact a shed's ignition, including its construction materials, size, orientation and the amount of flammable materials contained inside. They also factored in environmental variables like temperature and wind speed.

The study found that when a small wooden or steel shed was placed 15 feet away from a home, it could reduce the heat exposure by more than a factor of three. Any closer than that is in the “danger zone,” according to Maranghides. Additionally, when a wooden shed was replaced with a steel shed, the fire spread was limited significantly.

“By making proper choices of construction materials and the minimum structure separation distance, you can significantly reduce the fire hazard,” said Shonali Nazare, a materials research engineer at NIST. “We cannot regulate what people are going to put in their shed so our recommendations on the materials, sizes or distance are critical.”

But the engineers caution that these results don't apply to all scenarios. The engineers ran their tests with fire-hardened homes on flat ground. Homes that are located on slopes or made of other materials might need more separation from corresponding sheds.

Maranghides said bigger tends to mean riskier when it comes to home-shed wildfire prevention.

“The bigger the shed, the bigger the exposure, the farther you need to move the shed back,” Maranghides said.

But moving a shed away from one home could put it closer to a neighbor’s home, a situation that's more likely in high-density communities. To help homeowners, NIST put together a Hazard Mitigation Methodology that focuses on three general solutions: reduce, relocate or remove.

“What we're seeing now is we really have to do everything if we want to be protected against those severe disasters,” Maranghides said.

While moving individual sheds to fire-safe distances is important, Maranghides stressed that communities need comprehensive wildfire resilience strategies that include regulations on how homes are built in the first place.

“You cannot pick and choose what you address, and you have to do this at a community level," Maranghides said. “Fire doesn't care about parcel ownership. My shed will burn your house down and your fence will ignite ten parcels downwind.”

Whether through homeowner associations or local governments, Maranghides said more shed regulations need to be put in place to reduce the risk they can pose.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde

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