Living with Wildfire: Fuel reduction around your home

Column by Daniel Hatlestad
Posted 6/16/21

Wildfire has always played a prominent role in the environment of Colorado. Long before houses, towns and subdivisions were established across the landscape, fires were a natural result of the …

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Living with Wildfire: Fuel reduction around your home


Wildfire has always played a prominent role in the environment of Colorado. Long before houses, towns and subdivisions were established across the landscape, fires were a natural result of the frequent summer thunderstorms and lightning that traveled across the region. However, nearly a century of fire suppression has resulted in a buildup of fuel loads, creating conditions that have the potential to create catastrophic wildfires. Within this natural fire environment there are individual homes and entire communities. Many existing homes may be unable to survive an intense wildfire. Since it is not a question of “if” wildfires will occur but “when” they will occur across the Front Range, the likelihood of human life and property loss is great and growing. Our ability to live safely in this fire environment depends on pre-fire preparation. These are actions taken before a wildfire occurs that improve the survivability of human lives and homes. It is important to remember that there are no guarantees when wildfires meet extreme conditions and firefighting resources may be limited.

Multiple Large Fires in the Area or State Impact Resources

Many people assume that when a wildfire starts, it will be quickly controlled and extinguished. This is an accurate assumption in the vast majority of fires. For most wildfires, firefighters have the resources, equipment, and technology for effective fire suppression. Some wildfires burn so intensely and expand so rapidly that there is little firefighters can do. Even airtankers and helicopters, if available, cannot be expected to save every home in these fires. Fuel reduction around your home can reduce risks to your home and increase firefighter safety.

Your house is more likely to withstand a wildfire if grasses, brush, trees, and other natural and man-made fuels are managed to reduce a fire’s intensity. The Home Ignition Zone refers to the home itself and the immediate surrounding 30 to 200 feet. Survivable space is the modification of landscape design, fuels, and building materials around your home to make an ignition caused by wildfire unlikely, even without direct firefighter intervention. Create a survivable space around your structures by removing, reducing, relocating, and replacing fuels and vegetation to slow the spread of wildfire. Include detached garages, storage buildings, barns, and other structures in your plan. Survivable space involves developing a series of management zones in which different treatments are used.

Zone round your Home

This is the area of maximum modification and treatment. It consists of an area of at least 30 feet around the structure in which flammable materials and vegetation are removed and replaced with non-flammable decking or decorative stone and well-placed fire-resistant plants and groundcover. This distance is measured from the outside edge of the home’s eaves and any attached structures, such as decks or stairways.

• Trees here are considered part of the structure, the fewer the better, and are at least 10 feet from the structure.

• Remove “ladder fuels” from beneath trees.

• Keep plantings within 3 to 5 feet of the walls to a minimum, especially if structure sides are flammable. Decorative gravel, flagstone or concrete decking is recommended in this area.

• Dry grass next to flammable structural components can easily ignite and carry fire that may cause a home ignition.

• Do not stack firewood or store other combustibles in this zone.

• Remove branches overhanging or touching the roof to a distance of a least 10 feet. Remove all branches within 15 feet of the chimney.

Moderate Fuel Reduction Zone

The size of the zone depends on the slope of the ground where the structure is built. Typically, survivable space should extend at least 100 feet from the structure. Within this zone, the continuity and arrangement of vegetation is modified. Remove stressed, diseased, dead or dying trees, and shrubs. Thin and prune the remaining larger trees and shrubs. Be sure to extend thinning along either side of the driveway all the way to the main access road as this will assist with safe passage for you during an evacuation and for firefighters to access your home. These actions help eliminate continuous fuel surrounding a structure while enhancing fire safety and the aesthetics of the property.

• Thin trees and shrubs at least 10 feet between crowns, more if on a steep slope.

• Prune under large trees to a height of 10 feet. Remove ladder fuels from under trees.

• Locate propane tanks at least 30 feet from any structures, preferably on the same elevation as the house. Keep flammable vegetation at least 10 feet away from these tanks. Do not screen with shrubs or vegetation.

• Stack firewood and woodpiles at least 30 feet away and uphill from structure. Keep flammable vegetation at least 10 feet from woodpiles.

• Dispose of slash (limbs, branches and other woody debris) removed from your trees and shrubs by chipping or by piling and burning with an appropriate permit.

The Extended Zone is the area greater than 100 feet from the home. Space and prune trees and vegetation to keep flames smaller, lower to the ground, and to interrupt fire’s path.

Fire is a natural part of our Colorado ecosystem. It is not a matter of if we are going to have wildfires, but when we will have wildfires and at what intensity. Homeowners must assume a major role in wildfire protection by taking action to reduce the ignitability of their homes before the threat of a wildfire.

Daniel Hatlestad is the battalion chief for the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District.


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