Fire Safety at the Wildland/Urban Interface
Where You Live Makes a Difference
Every year we seem to hear about wildfires in California or "out west". Because of climate and vegetation differences, we know that some areas are more likely to have frequent fires than other areas. Fires in the Mid-Atlantic States are not as frequent, large, or intense as they are in much of the west. Still, if thereís a fire near your house or mine, itís a concern. And, it wonít be too much longer until insurance companies will begin to rate areas for fire prevalence just like they do for flood prone areas. They will make their decisions based on how fire prone an area is, and whether there is a history of fires along with the extent of damage from them. To decide what to do at your home to prepare for fire, it would be good to know when your locality is fire prone as well as how damaging those fires might be.
Fire seasonis the time or times of year that wildland fires are usually most likely to start and spread. Fire seasons vary across the country. Many people in the Mid-Atlantic are surprised to find that their primary wildland fire season is late winter to early spring when most plant moisture is still down in the roots and not in stalks, trunks, and branches. Trees have not leafed out, so sunlight from the lengthening days gets to the forest floor and fields. The ground is covered with dead grasses or leaves, pine needles, twigs and branches. Windy days are common. The dry, abundant fuels need only an ignition source. There is usually a secondary fire season in the fall, roughly mid-October through November. Plants lose leaves and shut down for the winter and October tends to be a dry month. By December, shortening daylight and cooler temperatures reduce the danger of wildfires.
Youíll notice that Iím describing the primary fire season "late winter to early spring". That will vary with just where you live. Are you near sea level? Or, are you living on the side of a mountain? Elevation, of course, makes a big difference in when true seasonal changes occur and when the wildlands are more likely to burn. Winter ends earlier in the Tidewater area of Virginia than it does in the Blue Ridge, and spring comes much later in the high country. Indicators of reduced fire danger in the Mid-Atlantic are when the marshes have greened-up, or the deciduous trees around your home or cabin are fully leafed out and green.
"Fire Season" may also be defined with specific dates for legal reasons. For instance, many states, including Virginia, have restrictions on open burning at certain times of the year. Localities may impose additional restrictions, often also by date. Keep in mind, however, that even if itís before or after a legal "fire season", your neighborhood could be more likely to burn than not. Under the right conditions, especially in drought years, there can be fire almost any time. On the other hand, well-timed rains and snows can make a fire season a fleeting event some years.
We already discussed in the first chapter how important human activities are in starting wildland fires, but many fires are started during fire season by mistake. For example, smoking a cigarette outside and flicking the butt is the cause of many fires each year. You are just tempting a fire to start when that butt lands on a mulched bed near the house or in dry grass or leaves. At our house one winter we started a fire by dumping ashes from the woodstove out on the ground. The ashes had been out of the stove and in the ash bucket for at least 3 days, but when we spread the ashes on our garden bed, the dry winds fanned some coals back to life and caught our dried grass on fire!
Figure 7.5: Fire Protection Triangle
Three key elements of the fire protection triangle: structural firefighters,
wildland firefighters, and the foundation of the triangle Ė the homeowner.
Illustration by Sarah Lynch-Walker.
You and I can help protect our homes from wildland fire. Thereís a third fire triangle to go with the fire and fire behavior triangles: the fire protection triangle (Figure 7.5). We homeowners are one part. The other two are the structural and wildland fire specialists. Many of the things described below are easy to do Ė raking leaves away from the house and cleaning out the gutters, for instance. They can make a big difference in reducing the risks to us, the risk to people in fire services, and in protecting our homes and landscapes.
Being careful not to start fires is a way to start, but there are several things you can do to make your landscape safer, your home more fire-resistant, and your neighborhood FireWise.
This is not the city. You cannot expect a 4-minute response time from the fire truck to help you put out a fire. Depending on where you live and how you prepare, you can be ready to minimize fire spread and damage until a fire crew can make it to your house. As youíll see later in this chapter, you really can help that fire team to do its job.
As we mentioned earlier, it will not be too long before insurance companies begin to rate areas for fire safety just like they currently rate flood and earthquake prone areas. To a certain extent they already do. Many homeowners have found that their rates are lower because they are closer to a fire hydrant. When insurance companies begin to charge for fire risk, they will almost certainly offer price breaks for homes and landscapes that are prepared for fire, as well as for FireWise Communities.
The beginning of this chapter gave you a lot of information about fire in general. This section will educate you further about fire behavior and how you can use your knowledge to protect your home.
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