It will be quite some time, if ever, before homeowners in Colorado forget the summer of 2012. More than 650 homes burned to the ground as a result of two major wildfires, The High Park and Waldo Canyon fires. And it's the last thing we want to see happen here in Oregon.
Oregon is no stranger to wildfire. Each year we're faced with extreme fire conditions; no corner of the state is exempt from wildfire. One travesty that came out of 2012 was the hundreds of cattle and other livestock lost to the 93,000-acre Barry Point Fire that straddled southern Oregon and northern California.
With the days getting longer and the sun revealing itself on a regular basis, now is the time to start prepping homes and communities for fire season. It's amazing how much good a few simple chores around the house can do before fire strikes.
Up on the Rooftop
Before addressing the hazardous fuels (vegetation that can bring fire to the structure), it's important to look at the structure first. The most vulnerable part of the house is the roof. This is where fire brands, or embers, can collect and smolder, eventually catching the house on fire long before the main fire arrives. The best defense is fire-resistant roofing material. If you're thinking of replacing your roof, check into class A materials, such as composition, metal or tile, which are the least likely to burn.
Regardless of the material itself, it is critical that the roof remain free of leaves, branches, twigs, pine needles, or anything else that could help a fire ignite and spread. This small, combustible debris can create a fuel bed and act as a receptor for fire brands that will increase the chances of ignition.
While we're still on the roof, take a look at the gutters. Gutters are also famous for capturing embers and allowing them to burn whatever material is present. Keep gutters clean and free of all flammable debris. Better yet, install screened gutter guards to prevent the build-up of needles and leaves.
When it comes right down to it, your house is really the last stand against wildfire. Even if you have done all you can to reduce the risk around the property, the house and its construction serves as the final defense against wildfire. The goal is to do whatever it takes to keep fire out. Cover all openings, like vents and under decks with fine, metal mesh. Remove all flammable materials such as lumber, leaves and pine needles from under decks. Make sure all doors and windows are in good condition and sealed properly. Should a fire threaten your community, place patio furniture cushions inside. Think to yourself, what could potentially catch on fire and transfer that fire to the house?
In order for fire to move across the landscape, it needs a partner: fuel. Wildland firefighters utilize several tools to put fires out; water toting aircraft, fire engines, bulldozers, shovels and pulaskis. Their objective is to encircle the fire by removing the fuel in its path to stop it from spreading further before they can ultimately put it out. That should be the objective of the homeowner as well, only providing this fuel break before the fire arrives.
Removing the Common Denominator
Elementary school science taught us that fire needs three things to survive; oxygen, heat and fuel. Fire moves, or behaves, depending on the weather, topography and fuel. Notice the common denominator? So a hot windy day in mountainous terrain scattered with an abundance of grass, brush and trees will produce a horrific fire. These were the conditions in Colorado in 2012. We can't control the weather and we certainly can't change the topography. But we can modify the fuels.
The optimal words are lean, clean and green. Start from the house and work out to about 30 feet (further as you move down slope). This is where you want to keep the grass short (and green if possible), remove all dead plants, break up the continuity of plants to keep fire from spreading, and limb up trees at least 10 feet or a 3-to-1 ratio above ground cover. Replace fire-prone vegetation, like juniper, with fire- resistant plants, such as kinnikinnick. Large trees near the house are fine as long as the limbs are well off the ground and pine needles or leaves are kept off the roof and out of gutters. There should also be ample space, about 20 feet, between trees (measure out from the limbs).
The area beyond the initial 30 feet should be treated as well. The National Fire Protection Association standard for reducing structure ignition hazards from wildfire recommends tree-crown spacing of a minimum of 12 feet when 30 to 60 feet from the structure, and 6 feet crown spacing 60 to 100 feet from the structure. Perhaps the greatest concern in this area is the presence of ladder fuels, or vegetation that allows fire to crawl up into the crowns of trees making it more difficult to control.
Start your spring cleaning today be creating defensible space around your home. By treating the structure and the surrounding landscape, you will greatly increase the chances of your home surviving a wildfire.
Visit these helpful web sites for more information.
Tom Fields works in fire prevention for the Oregon Department of Forestry