Wildfires have impacted mountain communities for a long time. In centuries past, wildfires burned unhindered across our landscape. These fires consumed dead brush and fallen trees, and opened up …
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Wildfires have impacted mountain communities for a long time. In centuries past, wildfires burned unhindered across our landscape. These fires consumed dead brush and fallen trees, and opened up travel routes for wild animals. Their heat caused dormant seeds to germinate, and their ashes nourished them. Gorgeous wildflowers and fresh green shoots appeared after each fire, providing premium food and habitat for wild animals and birds. Because these fires happened frequently, they burned “cool” and limited damage to the environment. They kept our forests and grasslands healthy, and prevented the devastating fires we see today.
Firefighters are passionate about saving homes. They know the heartache a fire can bring. But in a major wildfire, every blaze can’t be tackled right away. And not every house can be saved. Why? Because firefighting resources will be stretched too thin. And it may be too dangerous to try to save each home. Many people assume that during a wildfire a fire engine will be parked at every house. More likely, one engine will be assigned to an entire road, and it might stop at your house for a few minutes. Whether or not that engine visits your house depends mostly on your preparation. In a large fire, firefighters must “triage” homes. They will survey the neighborhood to see which homes are prepared and can be saved, and which are too dangerous to try to defend. If they see a wide driveway, defensible space around the house, and a place to turn around, they may attempt to protect your home. A garden hose left in clear view, a ladder propped against the home’s exterior, and rakes and shovels lined up for quick use all assist firefighters in protecting your home.
Many homes may be lost to wildfire after firefighters move on to protect other threatened strucutures, because smoldering embers were hiding under decks, in gutters, under roof tiles, and inside vents. Most wildfires start in windy conditions, and create more wind of their own. Burning embers or “firebrands” carried by wind can travel a mile from the main fire. And the wind will drive those embers into every nook and cranny they can find.
ROOF. A wood shake roof is your home’s worst enemy. Replace your shake roof with one made of composition, metal, cement, or tile as soon as you can. Make sure all little openings are sealed, to prevent burning embers from invading.
GUTTERS. Gutters and places where roof angles meet can trap burning embers. Keep your roof free of leaves, needles, and other debris, to help prevent a fire on your roof. If more than 1/4 of your roof is on fire, firefighters cannot try to save your home as resources are very limited.
SIDING. Wood siding is fuel for a wildfire. But walls made of stucco, brick, or cement/Hardie board will resist heat and flames.
EAVES. With wind rushing against your house, hot air and burning embers can get trapped under its eaves. Boxing in the undersides of your eaves will reduce this serious risk.
DECKS. Burning embers love to hide under decks and porches -- and then catch homes on fire. Prevent this by enclosing the undersides of your deck with non-flammable material or a fine wire mesh. Clear everything flammable out from under it.
CHIMNEYS. Chimney and stovepipe openings should be covered with wire mesh 1/4 inch or smaller, and an approved spark arrestor cap. Be sure to clean out your chimney every fall.
VENTS. To keep burning embers out, all vent openings should be covered with 1/4-inch metal wire mesh, or smaller.
WINDOWS. Radiant heat from a wildfire can cause windows to shatter. It can also melt window frames. Then burning embers can blow straight inside and start new fires. Large windows, including glass doors, are very vulnerable. Your best choice is double-paned or tempered glass, with small panes and metal frames.
PROPANE AND OTHER TANKS. Tanks should be at least 30 feet from your house. Clear all flammables 10 feet away from tanks. A fire near a fuel tank can cause it to heat up and vent with flames. Firefighters will steer clear of such dangers.
INSURANCE. Contact your insurance agent to confirm coverage is adequate for your house, outbuildings, personal belongings, and vehicles
DRIVEWAY. A driveway all the way around your house is ideal. It provides easy access for firefighters, a place for them to work -- and serves as a fire break between your home and the wildlands. Whatever shape your driveway, keep brush and branches trimmed back from it, up to 15 feet high, for fire engines’ access. A dense canopy of trees and brush close to and over your driveway signal danger to firefighters triaging homes in your neighborhood.
In recent decades we have interrupted this natural cycle of fire with suppression of all wildfires. We have built so many homes in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) that fires are no longer free to do their job. Wildfires have been vigorously fought to protect these homes and the increasing population in wildland areas has made doing “prescribed fire” difficult and controversial. The consequence? Our county has a huge buildup of flammable vegetation. Most areas have missed several cycles of normal wildfires. The quantity of brush and unhealthy trees is unprecedented. This means that wildfires in the future will burn much more intensely, frequently with greater damage than they did in the past. We must learn to live with wildfires -- and take action to protect ourselves, our families and the firefighters who respond to wildfire.
Daniel Hatlestad is the battalion chief for the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District.
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