By Adam Herrenbruck, Northwest Management, Inc
The threat of wildfire is part of life to someone who maintains a home on rural private property, but it does not have to be a prohibitive barrier. Though wildfires will and do occur, landowners can protect their own land and structures through smart development and preventative management.
Those who have yet to experience an immediate wildfire threat may not feel strong motivation to take preemptive fire-safety steps, but acting now is critical to being ready when the fire is close to home – and getting closer. While some of these practices may require significant time and investment, many initial actions are simple and cost-effective.
The area immediately around the home is the place to start when reducing wildfire risk. This area is often referred to as the “Immediate Zone” and is the area from zero to five feet away from all sides of the home. Dead plants and other highly-flammable materials should be removed from this area (including under decks and porches) and live plants and vegetation should be regularly maintained. Grass needs to be watered and mowed regularly. Any tree branches that overhang into the immediate zone, especially those that touch the house or roof should be pruned back or otherwise removed.
Beyond landscaping procedures, there are many other considerations when reviewing the immediate zone. Firewood, barbecues, and propane tanks should not be stored within the immediate zone but should instead be neatly stacked and stored safely apart from the home. Deck and lawn furniture can be extremely flammable and should be stored inside the home or a shed when not in use (especially when no one is home). Routine home maintenance is another critical but often-overlooked aspect to reducing fire risk in the immediate zone. Cleaning the roof and gutters of dead leaves and pine needles is important, as is cleaning up any other debris that could catch fire near the home. Broken, loose or missing shingles or window screens can also pose an increased fire threat so fixing and replacing these is important.
The “Intermediate Zone” makes up the area five feet away from the home and up to 30 feet away. This area might contain more vegetation but it still needs to be maintained in such a way that reduces fire risk, including the prompt removal of dead and dying plants and trees. Grass should be watered and mowed. Trees need to be spaced, not clustered, and mature trees should have branches pruned up to ten feet off the ground. Any stacks of firewood should be isolated from other flammable materials or objects that could worsen the spread of a fire. It is a good idea to store propane tanks and barbecues in areas that are free of vegetation or combustible materials, such as patios. All vegetation should be cleared from underneath or nearby large stationary propane tanks.
The “Extended Zone” is the area out past 30 feet and up to 100 or 200 feet from the home. The property in this zone should be maintained with the goal, not of preventing fire, but of keeping a fire from exploding out of control. This can be achieved through routine management and thoughtful planning. Small conifers growing among larger, mature trees can act as continuous sources of fuel for wildfires. Removing these young trees and periodically mowing down tall grasses can interrupt the path of a wildfire. Dead plant material, especially dead branches or dead trees, should also be removed regularly to lighten the fuel loading around the home area. The live trees growing in the extended zone can be more clustered but as a general rule spacing between trees should increase as they get closer to the home.
When considering what measures to take, each landowner can begin by looking right around the home itself and assess the immediate fire risks. As these issues are addressed then the landowner can take more and more actions to further and further prepare the property for wildfires.
Instructional resources and educational materials that detail different types of fire-resistant landscaping and homeowner practices are available and can be obtained through various state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations. Sources consulted during the creation of this article include the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA program (firewise.org) and Idaho Firewise, Inc. (idahofirewise.org)