This article, based on information from the Living With Fire website, explains what residents can do to improve their home’s odds of surviving a wildfire. Also, be sure to watch the Living With Fire video (the link is below the story) which also has tips on what to do during and after a wildfire. SOA Board Vice President Frank Leto helped produce this video.

By Nancy Chontos

We live in a high wildfire hazard area and as such the potential for loss of human life and property due to wildfire is above average. We – the homeowners – need to know the proven steps to take to improve the odds of survival during wildfires.

Why do some homes survive a wildfire and others do not?  It comes down to three pre-fire activities:

  1. Features of the house (composition of the roof, are there wooden decks, are vents covered with 1/8” or smaller wire mesh, etc.).
  2. Characteristics of the adjacent vegetation and other fuels – Something we can control.
  3. Routine maintenance – Something we can control.

What can homeowners do?

Address vegetation management – create and maintain an effective defensible space, review your home construction and prepare for evacuation. The Number One cause of structure damage is flying embers, so be vigilant in keeping a 5-foot zone around your home free from hazardous, flammable plant material.  The most important thing that each homeowner can do to protect his/her home is consistent, ongoing management of defensible space. Here are five steps to creating an effective defensible space:

Know your defensible zone. For flat to gentle slopes (0-20%), the defensible space for:

  • Grass (dry grasses such as cheatgrass and weeds) = 30 feet
  • Shrubs and woodland (sagebrush, pinyon and juniper) = 100 feet
  • Trees = 100 feet

Remove the dead.

  • Dead and dying trees and/or dead branches
  • Dead native and ornamental shrubs
  • Dead leaves, needles and twigs that are still attached to plants, draped on live plants or lying on the ground within 30 feet of the house
  • Dried grass, weeds and flowers

Create separation.

  • On flat to gently sloping terrain, individual shrubs or small clumps of shrubs (sagebrush, brittlebrush, rabbitbrush, pinyon and junipers) within the Defensible Space Zone should be separate from one another by at least twice the height of the average shrub.
  • Jeffrey pine and white fir should be thinned to provide an average separate between canopies of at least 10 feet.

No ladder fuels.

  • Vegetation that can carry a fire from low-growing plants to taller plants is called ladder fuel. Lower tree branches should be removed to a height of at least 10 feet.
  • Shrubs and trees growing under the drip line should also be removed.

Make it lean, clean and green.

  • Eliminate easily ignitable fuels or kindling near the house. This will help prevent embers from starting a fire in your yard. Remove most or all flammable wildland plants including big sagebrush, bitterbrush, rabbitbrush, cheatgrass, pinyon, juniper and manzanita.
  • Keep fire intensity low if it does ignite near the house. By proper management of the fuels near the house, a fire would not be able to generate enough heat to ignite the home. Emphasize the use of hard surfaces (concrete, pavers, etc.). Within 30 feet of the house, do not use wood mulches in a widespread manner, and do not use rubber mulches.

Little green gas cans

Firefighters often refer to ornamental junipers as little green gas cans.  During a wildfire involving homes, embers can smolder undetected under ornamental junipers.  The junipers can then ignite and burn intensely after firefighters have left the area.  Planting ornamental junipers next to your house is never a good idea.  Keep these little green gas can at least 30 feet from the house or replace them with low-growing deciduous shrubs, herbaceous flowers, rock mulches and hard surfaces.

Nancy Chontos is a Sierra Canyon resident.

Video: Living with Fire Before, During and After the Fire

This video was produced by the University of Nevada Reno Cooperative Extension and contains valuable information about what to do in the event of a wildfire.

Learn more

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