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Living in the Danger Zone

With all this precipitation from high snow pack to rain, the grasses, forbs and other fine fuels in the forest and fields are “growing like weeds.” When the rain stops, the temperatures increase and the forests begin to dry up… well, wildfire danger increases. Landowners should think about minimizing their loss from wildfire which is a normal and inevitable part of ecosystems here in the Inland Northwest.

I have been amazed by wildland surveys which include fire history studies. These surveys showed wildfire frequencies ranged from every seven years in some habitats to well over a hundred years in others, depending location and topography. Generally speaking southwestern slopes tended to burn quite often, about every 20 years on average but with a fairly low intensity. Because of the high frequency of these fires, the underbrush and ladder fuels (fuels which allow a fire to move from the forest floor into the forest canopy) were minimized and so these fires tended to burn along the ground, causing little if any damage to the forest and stimulating grass/perennial plant growth.

On the north slopes and in the more moist, shaded draws the fires tended to burn much less frequently - perhaps every 80 -100 years or more - but when they did burn, they tended to be much more destructive to the forest. They were stand-replacing events which can be quite healthy for the mountain ecosystem as a whole. Stand-replacing events such as fire, insect epidemics and logging are a necessary part of providing food for the critters of the Inland Northwest, especially the ungulates (deer, elk, moose, etc) which tend to eat brush, herbaceous plants, grasses, etc… These plants tend to need full sun and open areas to thrive in.

Over the last 80 years or so state and federal fire agencies have done a wonderful job of putting out those wildfires but in so doing have inadvertently set up a situation where the southern slopes have accumulated a lot of unburned fuels and the northern slopes have grown extremely dense and also collected a massive amount of unburned fuels. In addition, many more folks are recreating in the wild lands and are not too smart with fire. Throw into this mix all of us who want to live in these rural areas and we now have huge potential problems, for when fires do break out, they are much harder to control, burn hotter, may move faster and tend to cover more ground than has been historically the case. With the ever-increasing density of human habitat (houses, shops, barns) those who live in these wildland interface zones need to take precautions to minimize the risk of burning up.

From the onset of building a home in the wildland interface, there are certain building material choices a land owner can make which will greatly reduce the odds of your home burning down if wildfire encroaches. There are many products on the market for building which are far less flammable than the traditional choices (wood products) and some which are downright inflammable. Metal, Class-A asphalt shingles, slate or clay tile are the best choices for your roof, the part of a home most susceptible to catching fire. It would even be prudent to construct a fire-resistant sub-roof for added protection. For siding, products like hardy plank, stucco, stone or masonry are much less flammable, albeit perhaps less attractive, and be aware that vinyl siding tends to melt when heated.

Even the size and materials used for windows can reduce the risk of fire damage. Smaller panes hold up better in their frames than larger ones and tempered glass is a real safe bet. Plastic sky lights melt when heated, too, so you may want to consider using glass. Vents should be covered with wire mesh which is no larger than one-eighth inch to prevent sparks from entering the interior of the home. Keep gutters and roof clear of accumulated debris and clean out from under decks each season. It is not a good idea to keep firewood stored near the house, either as it tends to generate a tremendous amount of heat when burning. Avoid attaching fencing to the home or deck but if you have that condition existing, consider putting a non-flammable barrier between.

Landscaping is of paramount importance and if your home is already built it may well be the best thing you can do to minimize fire hazard. You want at least 30 feet around your home which is relatively fuel free and defensible. This would include being easily accessible for fire trucks and adequate irrigation or water outlets available for each side of the house.

Landscaping should consist of less flammable, lower growing plants and shrubs, preferably well spaced out from and not in contact with the house or decks. Trees should be few if any in this zone, or at least out away from structures and most importantly not hanging over the roof or in contact with exterior walls. Any trees which are around the home should have the lower branches pruned up at least six feet and consider putting a fire resistant ring around the base such as stone.

As you move out away from this first 30-foot minimum protection zone and out about 100 to 150 feet you still need to remove accumulated fuels, minimize shrubs, prune up trees and thin out the forest, so that trees are well spaced and less likely to carry a fire close to the house or outbuildings. It is a good idea to also have a lot of hose lay, which can be strung out into this wider area, in case spot fires flare up around the home. Wildfires can send flaming embers a mile or more out in front of the main forest fire, if wind conditions are right.

No matter what you do, when you live in the Mountain West, especially in the woods, you and your stuff are in danger from wildfire, but you can minimize the danger. Statistically you are still in way more danger driving your rig or crossing the street. But given that just about every square inch of this land has burned and will burn again, it is prudent to take some steps to minimize your susceptibility to loss. So be smart and don’t put it off again this summer. Get out there and enjoy your yard, while you minimize the fire danger.


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Author info

Michael White Michael White is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker - Sterling Society and a consultant for Northwest Group In-Land. He has a BS in Forest Resources & Ecosystem Management and specializes in land, ranches and homes with acreage.

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