Experts from the Wildfire Partners have basic fire prevention advice that could save your property from going up in flame
By Michael Frank
One look at the wildfires in California is enough to convince anyone: Fires are terrifying, and they're getting worse. Just like beach or ski season, they seem to roll in seasonally, with the wildfire season getting longer and scarier each year.
But not thinking about them won’t prevent you, your loved ones, and your home from going up in flames if you live in a wooded or dry area. And, unlike many other forms of natural disaster, fire is one danger you really can mitigate a great deal.
So take back some control. Here are some great things to think about and methods to counteract the threat of fire around your home and property.
Fire mitigation: An ounce of prevention....
The term "fire mitigation" is basically a fancy way of saying, "Get rid of all the stuff around your house that's likely to catch fire." It will go a long way to make your property safer and less likely to burn if a wildfire sweeps through the area. Do this advance work wisely and your property (and that of your neighbors — whom you should cajole into the effort) could create a fire break that allows fire fighters to stop a blaze in its tracks. Firefighters are your friend. Help them out!
We spoke to Abby Silver, a specialist with Boulder, Colorado’s Wildfire Partners program, which offers homeowners assessments of their property. Silver has personally survived both fires and floods, and is a volunteer fire mitigation coordinator for Sunshine Fire Protection District. Over the years she has taught hundreds of homeowners methods to help prevent their properties from becoming a fire statistic. It's a not-always-subtle process of telling folks what they need to do and why.
Warning, if you want to save your home (and, yes, far, far more forest), you’re going to need to get used to the cry of “timber!” in the name of safety.
Fighting fires on your own turf
Here’s a dirty little secret about your crib: Nobody wants to save it as much as you do. When you’ve thinned trees that brace your property, and made sure there’s no brush (a.k.a., fuel) against your home, you’ve sent a clear communication to firefighters who show up to defend it from wildfire. “Firefighters have been known to chainsaw a porch right off a home where they know the homeowner’s done everything else they can already to protect it,” Silver says. But a firefighter who sees a house where little preventative work has been done may decide that it is a losing battle. Put yourself in their shoes, Silver adds “Your stuff is your stuff. But a human life? I don’t want anyone losing their life to protect my stuff.”
Wild grasses allow a fire to climb a tree, the tree burns, the limbs that are nearest your home drop ash, and then “poof!” your house is on fire
Silver says it doesn’t have to come to that. Basic mitigation starts with thinning trees strategically, to create “crown breaks” so that fire cannot leap from tree top to tree top. If a fire approaches your house from the ground rather than from above, your property is much less likely to fry. The idea is to create an ignition-free zone around your home. Basic mitigation requires cleaning gutters, sweeping needles or other debris off the roof and deck. Then repair all siding that’s rotten or has holes in it. Caulk and wood putty are your pals here, as you can use it to quickly fix small holes rather than replace entire pieces of siding or trim.
At the ground level, create an ignition-free zone. That could mean eliminating the lowest portion of siding and replacing it with metal flashing, or cinder-block finished in cement or stone. Consider a perimeter of gravel around your home to create a fire break. Avoid grass and mulch, both natural ignition sources. Potted plants are fine, but avoid conifers of any kind, and ideally decorative bushes should be far from the house and deciduous. And they should not be planted in mulch. Succulents in a stone garden make more sense in water-starved climates anyway.
Have a raised deck? Don’t store fire wood under it. Ditto, that propane tank. Have the fuel company bury a line and run it to your home, but get that tank well away from the edge of your house. Not only does it look ugly, it’s like having a bomb right outside your beautiful abode.
Now work out from zero to five feet. If any fencing that abuts the house you need to break that up. The connecting portion has to be fire-proof. A metal gate is the easiest way to do that. The idea is to prevent a fire “bridge” directly to the home.
Next, move out about five to ten feet. Eliminate that mulch and flammable plants. You can have beautification elements, but they should live farther from the house itself. No tree, once mature, should have branches that extend within ten feet of touching the house. And any tree that’s borderline needs to have a clear periphery around its roots. Ground cover like mulch or wild grasses allow a fire to climb a tree, the tree burns, the limbs that are nearest your home drop ash, and then “poof!” your house is on fire.
Farther out, in the zone from five to 30 feet, keep grass short, no longer than four inches, and limb tree branches up to six feet from the ground. For shorter trees, divide the total height of the tree by thirds and only limb lower branches up to a third of the total tree height, so it remains healthy.
Silver does NOT recommend clear-cutting a property, but says you have to think of the zone rule and consider tree placement. Trees within the five-to-30-foot range should have a minimum of18 feet between their crowns — ie, at least that much space between each tree’s top. This prevents an impending fire from jumping from tree top to tree top toward your home. Farther out, from 30 to 60 feet, tree tops can be divided by 12 feet, and in the 60 to100 foot zone, they can be as close as six feet at the canopy.
To get a clearer picture of what this all might look like, Wildfire Partners have a sample report here.
Note: Silver says every property is different, and these basic National Fire Protection Association Guidelines may not take into account trees that are actually natural fire breaks, like aspens. Which is why it’s better to have a fire prevention specialist inspect your property. It could mean way less work than applying very general rules to your property. Also, Silver’s agency and most others employ arborists. They want to preserve trees, because that cools the property and shades it, and they also want to protect the trees that exist. That can require thinning over-growth and standing dead trees — which otherwise nature handles in the form of fire and disease.
What happens if I get caught in a wildfire? Have an escape planSilver says even if you’ve done all the mitigation in the world, you still need to think about the best evacuation methods. “I advise folks to be familiar with their evacuation routes so that if they have to leave quickly and in potentially smoky/scary conditions, they know where they're going. I also highly encourage them to leave immediately upon getting an evacuation call rather than sticking around.”
Heed evacuation warnings. “Maybe you spend a night in a hotel, and maybe you lose your property, but you don’t lose your life.”
It is super important to have a plan — before things get heated. Agree, as a family, on a safe place where you’ll all go to to meet up. It could be the town library or a church, just as long as everyone’s on the same page. Talk to your children about this plan, too. Imagine what would happen if you got separated by smoke and fire. Your child should know ideally where to go even if you aren't leading them.
This is also the time to think about what you should bring with you. Forget packing the whole house. If you've got five minutes to get out, consider the elementals. Your go bag should already be packed and ready, and should also include cash and photocopied documents. Medications are the other thing you'll want and need.
Escape routes: the sooner the better
Think critically about how you would get off your property. First of all, you MUST HEED WARNINGS. If authorities tell you to leave, then leave! As Silver says, “The worst case is you spend a night in a hotel, and maybe you lose your property, but you don’t lose your life.”
When it comes time to leave, park your escape vehicle as close as possible to the house and have it already turned around so that it is facing down the driveway. That way you can jump in and drive away as quickly as possible if you feel you've lingered too long. Again,it's NEVER a good idea to be on foot in a fire situation (unless you're a trained firefighter in proper clothing and equipment). And if get an evacuation notice,park any extra vehicles at least 30 feet from any structures or valued resources so that those vehicles don't become a fuel source that catches the structure on fire. Also, Silver says, knowing your turf is important. How steep is it? Will you need to think about footwear? Is there rock, or foliage that will mitigate fire — and can you exit that way?
Where is the fuel? Where is it likely to burn? Doing a thorough land survey of the adjacent properties will tell you likely fire entry points and also point you toward likely exits. Then work backwards from there about where you might want to walk to a parked car and how long that approach might take.
She also advises some unorthodox thinking — like if wildfire comes suddenly and you’re not home. Is there a plan of what to do with pets? Note: Have carriers in an obvious place so anyone can grab Fluffy, STAT. Make sure the neighbor knows where you’ve hidden a spare key, too. You shouldn’t have to call them — there should be an agreement in place.
Don’t presume your phone’s going to work, even if you have a land line. Silver says communication goes down in disasters, period. “One thing people don’t expect is that the power gets cut,” Silver says, to prevent power lines from igniting more flames. So she says if your home is on well water that’s not going to work, and you’ll lose lighting, too. (A good reason to keep strong flashlights and headlamps around.)
Silver also says if a fire comes on fast, and you can't escape, know which part of your home to shelter in. It could be a bathtub or a dug basement, but “Don’t try to outrun fire or out-drive it. It doesn’t work.”
And she notes that trying to hose down your home to save it rarely works, especially if you’re home is on well water, because the power will be cut, so your well pump won’t function. “It’s a lot more effective, if you have the resources, to hose down the proximate landscape if you have the time to make it happen.” Still, she says, you’re far smarter “Sweeping the pine needles off your deck regularly."
Which means, yep, a little advance work today to help save you from trouble later.
Special thanks to Abby Silver and the Wildfire Partners. For more info on the Wildfire Partners, click here.
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