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How to protect your home from wildfire

By Lisa Jensen
Special to The SUN

Photo courtesy Lisa Jensen Participants at a recent wildfire mitigation workshop move from the structure to the first zone of defensible space. Bill Trimarco (center, with ballcap) describes mitigation recommendations to protect the residence.

Photo courtesy Lisa Jensen
Participants at a recent wildfire mitigation workshop move from the structure to the first zone of defensible space. Bill Trimarco (center, with ballcap) describes mitigation recommendations to protect the residence.

Participants in a recent Home Ignition Zone and Defensible Space Workshop learned ways to mitigate the environment around their homes to reduce the threat from wildfire.

The workshop was sponsored by FireWise of Southwest Colorado and Colorado State University Extension, Archuleta County.

Bill Trimarco, FireWise coordinator for Archuleta County, introduced the workshop by saying, “As soon as the monsoons come, we forget about fire mitigation, but we are not out of the woods yet,” citing a few small fires burning that day in Archuleta and La Plata counties

Trimarco explained that mitigation around the outside a home is about looking for places that give burning embers a path to the home or a way into the home. Studies of wildfire behavior over the past 10 years have shown that at least 90 percent of homes that have burned were never touched by flame, but rather caught fire from the “blizzard of embers” that run one-quarter to one-half mile ahead of the flames. Embers will collect in many of the same places that snow collects in winter, and if there is combustible material in those places, such as pine needles, leaves, wooden patio furniture, straw mats, stored lumber or firewood, it will burn.

Peggy Beach, a volunteer FireWise ambassador and the workshop host, attested that in home ignition zone training sessions she has attended, she learned of a home that burned after a broom leaning against the outside wall caught fire.

Trimarco stressed that many of the steps necessary for fire mitigation can be completed in a simple afternoon’s cleanup around the home. While it may not be desirable or practical to eliminate all combustibles, such as cushions, barbecue propane tanks and decorative items, he suggested removing such items in the event of evacuation, if you have the time. If you are evacuated, you should also close all windows and doors, but leave doors unlocked in case firefighters need to enter the home.

The first place to start is right against the building, looking for places burning embers could land or enter the home. The area below decks should be clear of leaves, pine needles, wood or other items that will burn. Shorter decks should be screened or otherwise blocked to prevent embers from getting below the deck. Decks should also be maintained and treated, as studies have shown that stained wood decks do not catch fire as quickly as weathered, unstained wood.

Next, inspect the roof for places embers could land. Flat roofs should be clear of pine needles and other debris, as should valleys on pitched roofs and rain gutters. Roof, soffit and other vents on the building should be screened, ideally with 1/8 inch steel mesh.

The ground right against the home should also be clear of combustible material, including wood chips. Juniper shrubs should not be planted or allowed to grow right against the house, as they ignite and burn like “Roman candles” due to their volatile resins and lacy branches. Grass should be trimmed.

After inspecting the outside of the house itself, the group moved to the first zone of defensible space, 15 to 30 feet from the structure. In this zone, a homeowner should look for paths where flame could travel to the structure. Trimarco suggested that favorite trees within the first zone should be treated like separate structures, and mitigated as is the home itself. For example, clear pine needles and other debris from the ground, trim the lower 10 to 12 feet of Ponderosa pines, and strive for spacing between trees akin to their natural, park-like setting. Eliminate fuel ladders such as oak brush that could carry flame to an adjacent juniper, which could then spread to the crown of the Ponderosa pine both are growing under.

The second zone is 30 to 100 feet from the house. In this zone, Trimarco advised removing ladders where flames could reach tree crowns and thus spread to trees closer to the home. Alternately, if the homeowner wishes to retain thick oakbrush or other trees, they should treat thick stands as separate islands with spaces between them.

The third zone is 100 feet to the end of a property line. In this zone, Trimarco suggested some thinning of trees, perhaps leaving three to five snags (dead trees) per acre for wildlife habitat. Participants recognized that mitigation requires ongoing work, and homeowners may need to prioritize efforts based on available time and resources. Every step increases the home’s safety from wildfire.

“Protecting Your Home from Wildfire: Creating Wildfire-Defensible Zones “ is a quick guide that can be downloaded from the Colorado State Forest Service website, www.csfs.colostate.edu. Free resources are also available on the Colorado State University Extension website, www.ext.colostate.edu/fire.

For more information about home inspections for fire mitigation, the Neighborhood Ambassador Program, chipper rebate grants or other FireWise programs, contact Trimarco at archuletafirewise@gmail.com or 264-0430.

This story was posted on August 29, 2013.