This morning, I watched the sun come up through an orange haze. It’s fire season, and somewhere in Oregon, a family is evacuating: driving away from their home, hoping something will be left of it when they return. It’s not inconceivable that the whole neighborhood will be reduced to ashes, although sometimes a house remains, apparently untouched. How can you increase the chances that would be your house?
I looked out the window at the surreal atmosphere and wondered if this is what it is to live on Mars.
Contrary to our imaginings, a great wall of fire doesn’t roar down the street, consuming every house on the block. Houses near a wildfire most often catch fire-- ignite-- when a glowing ember drifts on the wind from a fire that can be miles away and lands on a pile of combustible material on or near your house. There are many things you can do to reduce the risk of ignition in the advent of a fire event… even if it isn’t a raging wildfire.
Retired USDA Forest Service fire scientist, Jack Cohen, organized the spaces around a home into 3 “ignition zones”:
The immediate zone includes your house and the area 5 feet around the perimeter. A fire can easily start here and once inside, engulf your house in flames.
Make sure your roof and gutters are cleared of all combustible debris. Are there piles of dry leaves that have collected in the valleys of your roof? In the gutters? Your roof may be fire-resistant, but if any of the fire licks under the shingles, it can ignite the wooden roof structure, race through the attic, and take your whole house.
Repair any screening on the vents. Replace ¼” mesh with 1/8” to reduce the chance an ember may float inside.
Check your windows and screens. Are they in good repair? Debris in corners can catch fire, or an ember may drift through a hole in your screen.
Check that the ground is clear of combustibles that would make Bear Grylls excited on a cold night. Leaves, dead wood, pine needles, bark mulch, or other dry debris.
Move the firewood pile away from the house.
Check below patios and decks for combustible debris; screen with mesh or box in the area to prevent accumulation of debris.
Maintain the plants surrounding your house, pruning away the dead wood inside. What kind of plants? There are fire-resistant plants and plants that go up like torches (arborvitae).
Mow your lawn to a height no more than 4 inches Is it alive or dead? Irrigate close to the house.
Be aware that your patio furniture and the cushions may be flammable. Have a plan for moving it away from risk in a fire event.
If your outdoor furniture is on a wooden deck, know that flame retardant can be sprayed on the wood, and when next replacing the deck, less flammable options are available.
The intermediate zone reaches from 5 to 30 feet. This is where careful landscaping can influence fire behavior.
If your yard is surrounded by a wooden fence, consider replacing it with less combustible material. If it is attached to your house, replace that section with fireproof materials. Be creative!
If you have outbuildings, sheds, or propane tanks that are vulnerable to fire, make sure there is adequate distance from the house. Remove hazardous shrubs and debris from their perimeter as well.
Evaluate the fire-ladder effect of shrubs near trees. Are the taller trees limbed up 6-10 feet? Is there twice the shrub height between the top of the shrub and the bottom of the tree canopy?
Prune the tree canopy at least 10 feet from your structure.
Plant trees in clusters that do not form a continuous burning line.
Create fire breaks with driveways, paths, sidewalks, courtyards, and patios.
The extended zone reaches to 100 feet or more, depending on the height of the fuel outside your zone.
Clear flammable debris such as leaves, twigs, or dead trees.
Remove small conifers that have volunteered between larger trees.
Space trees so that flames cannot easily travel from canopy to canopy.
Cooperate with your neighbors for clearing hazardous conditions.
What's wrong with these photos??!!
There doesn't need to be a wildfire for these situations to blow up. Anyone up for a neighborhood fence barbeque?
Or a neighborly bonfire?
With mindfulness and creativity, your landscape and its care and maintenance can help your house survive a wildfire.
Here are links for more information about what you can do to help your house survive a wildfire:
For lists of fire-resistant plant material or plants to avoid:
For suggestions of fire-resistant deck materials: