As I write this chapter, the Station Fire north of Los Angeles is in all the news, as is the fact that the past 10 years have seen seven of the ten largest forest fires since we have been keeping records. These fires are some of the largest wildfires we can see evidence of, even if we look at the record reflected in the rings of ancient trees. Why is that, and, more importantly, what does that mean for us? These are both fair questions. The beginning of this chapter will attempt to answer those questions as well as explain a little bit about how fires behave. Then we’ll show you how to prepare your landscape and your home to be a little more fire safe. Doing so means you’ll also be helping your friends and neighbors, as well as the fire services.
Why are the Fires Bigger? The U.S. Forest Service admits to part of the responsibility for the bigger fires. For years the plan has been, as Smokey the Bear puts it, “Only you can prevent forest fires”. And we did. We did it so well in fact that we missed the point that sometimes a little fire is a good thing. In the past few years, we’ve listened better to fire ecologists who point out that fire was a natural part of certain ecosystems and is needed to keep those systems working correctly. We worked hard to prevent wildfires, and wildland fire agencies worked quite efficiently at putting them out lickety-split. The result was a gradual build up of waste wood and debris in the wilderness that should have been burned off in more frequent wildfires. Now, however, because we fought fires so valiantly over the past 100 years, that debris has built up to levels where, if a fire catches, it burns with incredible heat and ferocity. This fact accounts for so many of the fires burning hot enough as to cause more extensive damage, and for them catching hold so quickly that we have trouble curtailing them until they burn over thousands of acres.
Some ecosystems like the Piñon pines out west and the savannahs in eastern North Carolina depended on frequent fires to keep the undergrowth down. In the case of the Piñon pines, fire kept the competition down and allowed those trees to grow for long lifetimes and achieve great heights. In the case of the savannahs of North Carolina, keeping the fires from happening caused grasses to shade out endangered plants such as pitcher plants and Venus fly traps. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, and a little bit of it is necessary to keep it functioning properly. The real problem is that when we live in the wildlands we do not want the fire because it can endanger us, our homes, and investments. Fire services spend vast sums of money protecting homes and other personal investments in the wildlands and in the Wildland/Urban Interface.
The reasons for that are quite simple. More people than ever before are living in the Wildland/Urban Interface. The things we do there cause fires. We learned in the first chapter that only 4% of wildland fires in Virginia are started naturally by lightning. Not everything is a careless act or arson, but just our being where the fuel is and doing the normal things we do make for more chances for a fire to get started as well as supplying more fuel to keep it going.
You are living in the Wildland/Urban Interface. If there is a fire you need to be prepared. That preparation should begin now – long before you smell the smoke. You can prepare your landscape, your home, your community and yourself to minimize the chances for starting a fire, in turn minimizing the intensity and spread of the fire, and protecting your family, property and your home.
The first step is to learn about fire. Then learn about your particular situation in nature, plan or retrofit your landscape and home, and, finally, should the unthinkable happen, plan your escape.