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The First Step to Help Avoid Wildland Fire Disaster is Acting Wisely

A large plume of smoke rises over Colorado Springs, Colo., that cast a wide, dark shadow over homes and businesses. Wildland fires burn intensely and creating a defensible space around your home can be the difference between a close call and complete destruction. (Adam Drake/Inciweb.org)

A large plume of smoke rises over Colorado Springs, Colo., that cast a wide, dark shadow over homes and businesses. Wildland fires burn intensely and creating a defensible space around your home can be the difference between a close call and complete destruction. (Adam Drake/Inciweb.org)

The pictures are poignant: house after house destroyed by a wildland fire. We look at these pictures and wonder if anything could have been done to better protect these homes.

Sometimes wildfires are unpredictable. But there are measures homeowners can take that will help lessen the chances a fire will consume their property.

“People who live in a wildland-urban interface often forget or disregard the wildland fire cycles and dangers,” said Tom Harbour, Fire and Aviation Management director. “We need homeowners to understand that they can make a difference by making their homes defensible from wildfire.”

The U.S. Forest Service partners with the National Fire Protection Association on Firewise Communities, a program that teaches people how to adapt to living with wildfire and encourages neighbors to work together and take action now to prevent losses.

Equally impactful as seeing scores of homes lost to wildfires are those photos showing flames of a fast-moving fire passing over or halting to an invisible line. Sometimes that invisible line is the product of a homeowner intentionally designing landscaping that is based on Firewise practices.

Fire Adapted Communities, a coalition that includes the Forest Service and Firewise, released a case study about the Waldo Canyon Fire that began on Pike National Forest and spread to nearby Colorado Springs, Colo. Last year, this wind-whipped fire caused the death of two people and destroyed 346 homes in a community where more than 35,000 homes are within the wildland-urban interface.

At the time Waldo Canyon was considered the worst fire in Colorado’s history, but it could have been even worse. While devastating, several years of community education, projects and planning are credited with helping to save 81 percent of the homes in the three neighborhoods threatened by the fire – made worse by extremely dry conditions and high winds. It was, one fire official said, an urban inferno.

Today, Colorado Springs-area firefighters and residents are in the midst of the Black Forest Fire, now called the most destructive fire in Colorado history. To date, the fire has consumed more than 14,000 acres, destroyed more than 480 homes, damaged more than 15 and killed two people. As of Monday, the fire was 75 percent contained and is believed to be human caused.

Matt Cyrus knows the personal and professional benefits of taking precautionary measures to protect a home before a fire. Ironically, Cyrus, a captain with the Cloverdale (Oregon) Fire Protection District, was the first responder on the scene of a fire on his property. But he felt he had less to worry about because he had prepared for many years to defend his property against fire. The fire burned as expected but did not harm his home.

So how did he do it?

Don’t forget to clean anything stored underneath decks and porches and remove vegetation as a precaution against wildland fires. Leaves, twigs and other debris act as fuels that feed a blaze. Keep leaves and needles off of your roof and deck and make a fuel-free area within 3-5 feet of your home’s perimeter. (Photo used by permission from the National Fire Protection Association Firewise Communities Program)

Don’t forget to clean anything stored underneath decks and porches and remove vegetation as a precaution against wildland fires. Leaves, twigs and other debris act as fuels that feed a blaze. Keep leaves and needles off of your roof and deck and make a fuel-free area within 3-5 feet of your home’s perimeter. (Photo used by permission from the National Fire Protection Association Firewise Communities Program)

Look closely at a firewise property such as Cyrus’ and you will see a common theme: defensible space stretching at least 100 feet from a structure and in some cases a couple of hundred feet. These firewise yards are surrounded by grass, rock or evergreen ground cover, and in some instances even dirt. This “empty space” creates an area of land where the high intensity heat has nothing to burn, compared to a home surrounded by trees, bushes, sheds and other combustible items.

Although the Forest Service and other federal, state and local crews work hard to protect residents, property, infrastructure and natural resources from wildfire, homeowners ultimately have a responsibility to their own property.

You and your community can prepare for wildfire to help not only yourself and your family, but also the firefighters who put their lives in harm’s way to fight wildfires.

Flames overtake much of the Black Forest community near Colorado Springs, Colo. The Black Forest Fire has already surpassed last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire as the most destructive fire in the state’s history. (Photo courtesy Inciweb.org)

Flames overtake much of the Black Forest community near Colorado Springs, Colo. The Black Forest Fire has already surpassed last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire as the most destructive fire in the state’s history. (Photo courtesy Inciweb.org)

4 Responses to “The First Step to Help Avoid Wildland Fire Disaster is Acting Wisely”

  1. Chris Daley says:

    I feel developers should NOT be allowed to build numerous homes, subdivisions in forest habitats period-in the West. I’ve heard of trades of parcels-forest land to a builder for another parcel left alone in another location. My experience is finding no trespassing signs past the USFS boundary where homes are located within the forest tract. This is unacceptable to me!

  2. Michael Bugg says:

    The defensive perimeter makes sense, but it defeats the purpose of having trees for shade in the summer. I wonder if one could leave a few trees close to the house, then have a 200 foot clear area outside of the trees you keep. Of course that would mean one would have to own that much to establish a clear area 200 feet deep. How hard would it be to have a sprinler system running along the ridge of the roof and a couple sprinklers to spray the sides of the house by simply turning them on? I know water is expensive, but it is cheaper than a new house and possessions!

  3. Michele Steinberg says:

    Being Firewise around your home doesn’t mean you have to get rid of all your trees. Firewise employs a “zone” concept that starts with the house and works out to that 100-200 foot (depending on slope and conditions in your area) perimeter. The idea of minimizing vegetation 100 or so feet around the structure is to prevent large flames from radiating heat that could ignite the house. But other strategies – especially removing fine fuels like leaves, needles and dry grass on or near the house and its attachments – also make a very big difference in your home’s survival. Paying attention to these “little things” can help prevent embers from igniting these materials and can keep small flames or “surface fire” from touching your house. Since your home could ignite in any of these three ways (large flames radiating heat, embers igniting material on your home or entering an opening, and surface fire or small flames actually touching your house, deck or fence), you have to pay attention to all these factors. Firewise provides a Landscaping and Construction guide that covers the details. (See http://www.firewise.org/~/media/Firewise/Files/Pdfs/Booklets%20and%20Brochures/BookletGuidetoFirewiseLandscapeandConstruction.pdf).

    Michele Steinberg
    Firewise Communities Program Manager
    National Fire Protection Association

  4. Helios says:

    I did a lot of backpacking over the last few years and keep up with the conditions on several long trails. It seems like every year there are a growing number of wildfires. Possibly, in the past it would not have been such a big deal but with the mass communities that are being built the potential for disaster has increased. A defensive perimeter is fine, but if your neighbors do not do the same it is almost pointless. It takes a community action plan.

    I spoke with a fire ranger at the 2012 Gila fire and they explained how the Earth is in a cyclical drought period and that the Southwest is being affected. However, in about 15 years the drought will move towards the East Coast and then we will see some real damage because of the population density. I work at directeventinsurance.com and insurance is becoming a big deal in these areas with higher risk. If the premiums go up to a point where people cannot afford them perhaps that will thin out the population and building density in certain areas?

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