The recent wildfires in the western states have been making headlines for
months. Everyone feels sympathy for the people who are being left homeless, and
secretly are glad it isn't them. Keep in mind, it could happen here, especially
if you live out in a wooded environment. But there are steps you can take to
keep your home safe. The program with the answers is
FireWise is a national fire prevention program that targets adults:
homeowners, builders, developers, and community leaders. The purpose of the
program is to make people aware that it is possible to build and maintain a home
that will withstand a wildfire. The FireWise program started with funding from
the National Fire Plan in 2000. The impetus for the program was Black Friday,
May 15, 1985. On that day in Florida, 400 homes were lost to a wildfire in one
day. While that statistic is alarming, since then, that record has been broken
But who really is at risk. If you live in the wildland/urban interface you
are at risk. But what in the world is that?! Basically, the wildland/urban
interface is where the city meets the country. And that includes a whole lot of
Arkansas. There are three scenarios that include this wildland/urban interface.
The first is that suburbs are moving or pushing into neighboring forests. There
are also islands within a city or urban area that are heavily forested -- areas
smaller than Pulaski county's Boyle and Burns Park. The third scenario is
isolated homes out in the countryside.
More and more people get away from the city life, and move out into the
country. They move away from crowded homes, too many people, etc. They want more
space. They are now entering the wildland/urban interface. Keep in mind, the
further you live from a fire station, the greater your responsibility to take
precautions from fire. This doesn't mean we all need to move back to the city,
but we need to be informed about what we can do to prevent a disaster.
Let's look at some of the variables. First, what exactly is a wildfire? A
wildfire is defined as a fire burning in natural vegetation -- it is spreading
and moving across the country. It is a fire that is running unchecked. It burns
vegetation -- and anything in its path can be fuel for a wildfire. Wildfires
differ from structure fires, which usually stay on the block.
Wildfires are going to happen, especially in dry years, there is no way to
completely stop them. But we can reduce or eliminate our risks. What can you do
to make sure a wildfire doesn't make it to your home? The first thing is to
create a defensible space around your home. A defensible space is the space
between your house and an oncoming wildfire where firefighters have room to
successfully fight the fire. It is an area where the vegetation has been chosen
or modified to reduce the threat of fire. The amount of defensible space depends
on the slope and what type of forest fuel (types of tree growing in the area).
Fires start when the fuel reaches a specific temperature. Heat is transferred
through the three mechanisms.
Radiation - Radiant heat which means the light heat from the fire -- keep in
mind the heat you feel when standing next to your fireplace or grill. The closer
you are, the more likely you catch on fire. This is not sparks, or as little as
30 feet of defensible space can reduce the risk of your home catching on fire
from radiant heat.
Convection is heat rising. If your house is uphill from a fire, the heat from
the fire is more likely to cause problems. Heat from the fire dries the fuel
above it making it easier to start. Your defensible space would need to be 30-
200 feet, depending on the steepness of the slope and the type of plant
materials growing on that slope.
Conduction is flames or embers coming in contact with the home. You need to
eliminate dead wood close to the home. Avoid highly flammable plant materials,
including Junipers, cedars, pines and large grasses. This is the culpret that
usually causes houses to catch fire. People leave highly flammable vegetation
under the eaves of a house, or fuels on the roof. These are the things that
You must keep your roofs free of debris-this means falling leaves, small
limbs and debris on the roof as well as the gutters. Homes must be kept clean of
fallen leaves. An ember from a wildfire hitting a pile of dried leaves (an
excellent receptive fuel); an old tree stump, or dead limb in the tree is an
easy way for another fire to get started.
How large the defensible space needs to be, is determined by the location of
your house. If you live on a flat, or gentle slope, the space needs to be
approximately thirty feet around your house. If you have a 21-40% slope, the
distance may be increased to 100 feet, and those most at risk -living on more
than a 40% slope, need defensible space between 100 and 200 feet. If you live in
a pine plantation, you are more at risk than if you live amidst hardwoods.
The area right next to your home is very important. FireWise folks refer to
the "Lean, Clean, and Green" approach to this defensible space. Lean small
amounts of fire resistant (all vegetation will burn. Some just not as easily as
others.) vegetation -- Don't have it over planted with shrubs you cannot
maintain. Clean - no accumulation of dead vegetation or other flammable debris
-- keep it as clean of debris as possible-this includes fallen leaves, twigs,
etc. And lastly, Green- plants are healthy and green during the fire season.
There are three basic zones of defense. Zone 1 is the area within five feet
of your house. Avoid overhanging tree limbs, organic mulches, and extremely
flammable plants like junipers, pines and tall grasses. This area doesn't need
to be barren, but the plants should be well maintained, and river gravel or
similar material is a better mulch than the organic mulches, which can burn.
Raised beds, large decorative rocks, stone or concrete walkways or patios can be
attractive, and also serve as a fuel break for fire safety.
Make sure this area is kept free of debris, and that includes the roof of
your house, and the gutters.
Zone 2 includes the area 10 feet away. Pay attention to the trees in your
yard. Limbs should be kept pruned at least 10 -15 feet from the ground. Thin out
trees to where the canopies don't touch. If you have a continuous ring of
foliage where one tree co-mingles with the next, if a fire starts, it can easily
spread from tree to tree. Having space between the trees is beneficial. Make
sure that all tree limbs are a minimum of 15 feet away from your chimney. When
choosing trees stagger medium and tall trees. Choose dogwoods, maples,
sassafras, oaks, etc. instead of pines or eastern red cedars
Another term in FireWise is "ladder fuels". To use a simple explanation, the
fuels are arranged in such a way that the fire can step up from the ground to
the top of a tree, like climbing a ladder. Dead branches in shrubs and fallen
pine needles stuck in branches are perfect ladder fuels. if you have dense
plantings with plants of staggering height, a fire can burn upwards, like the
rungs of a ladder. For example, say a fire starts in your pine needle mulch, it
then burns the lower shrubs, which move up to the taller shrubs and then into
the trees. The fuels that carry this fire upward are the ladder fuel. This
upward burn is referred to as "ladder fuel". To prevent this problem provide
space between your plantings, roughly three times the height of the lower "fuel"
plant to the taller plant nearby.
In the third zone-up to 30 - 100 feet away from the home. Keep this area as
clean of dead limbs, leaves, etc. Do not have a continuous line of plants from
the wildland area to your house. You must have breaks or buffer stones. Mulching
with pine bark or pine needles next to the house is not a good idea. Hardwood
mulch will not start as rapidly as pine needles, but a gravel or natural stone
mulch would be better. And by all means keep your plants watered when dry, if
Landscaping is not your only consideration. If you are currently building a
home in the country, consider the building materials. Use heat and flame
resistant materials. Avoid Rough cedar siding and cedar shake roofs. While they
may look great and rustic, they are both highly flammable.
Don't forget about your deck. Decks should be built out of solid materials-a
minimum of a 2 by material with 4x4 posts. Your deck should be enclosed or have
a concrete patio under it. Make sure it is kept free of dead leaves and debris.
All firewood should be stacked outside of the 30 foot defensible space--not
stored next to your house.
Consider what would happen if a fire did occur. The more remote your house
is, the larger your responsibility will be. If you are within 1000 feet of a
fire hydrant, a fireman can hook onto that. If there is no readily available
water source, most fire trucks normally carry 300 feet of preconnect- this is
the hose that hooks to the pump of the truck that is ready to fight the fire
immediately. Each truck carries a minimum of 500 gallons of water. Keep in mind
that if you have a raging fire in one room of your house, it can take at least
1500 gallons of water to put it out. IF you live in a rural or remote area,
several trucks will come, and a tanker truck-with extra water. Tanker trucks can
carry 1000- 6000 gallons of water. But can the fire trucks make it to your
house? If your driveway to the house is greater than 300 feet, then your
driveway must be a minimum of 12- 16 feet wide to allow fire truck access. Keep
in mind, that once the fire truck gets up to your home, they have to have room
to turn around. If you have a fire, and you have all these trucks show up, where
are they going to go. You really need to have two ways in and out. Having a
firewise house doesn't mean sacrificing the country life for a bare lot.
FireWise does mean taking a little extra time and effort to maintain the trees
and shrubs around your house so they don't add to the problem of wildfire.
Many people have the attitude "it won't happen to me", but remember the old
adage, better safe than sorry. If you live in the wildland/urban interface-take
inventory, and see just how prepared you are.
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