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Protecting your home against forest fires

Sidebar by Chas S. Clifton

Wildfire – July 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Many Colorado Central readers live in what is called the “urban interface” — in other words, right up against the trees. Many of the homes that burned in the canyons of Los Angeles, in the Oakland Hills fire a decade ago, in the Black Tiger fire outside Boulder more recently, and in Los Alamos this spring, were similarly situated. Whether the fire nearing your home started from lightning, a campfire, or a forester’s drip torch, the end result might be the same — a sooty foundation and a pile of ashes.

In the city, people plant junipers and other trees to mask their homes’ foundations. In the “urban interface,” that’s dangerous. Unless it’s wet, junipers (cedars) can burn like gasoline on a stick. Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir ignite less easily, but they burn too, particularly if the fire progresses from the forest floor to brush to trees. Gambel oak is relatively fireproof early in the summer, but becomes more flammable as the season progresses.

Fires that destroy hundreds of homes, as in Oakland and Los Alamos, often skip some houses. Perhaps the wind shifted — or perhaps the homeowner did some smart thinking.

–Forest fires throw sparks ahead of them. A metal, tile, or composition shingle roof is much less likely to ignite than a roof of cedar shakes, which just beg to burn.

–Large decks (often saturated with oily preservatives) burn nicely, especially when they extend out over brushy areas.

–Homes with trees closer than thirty feet, especially if limbs are touching the building or extending over it are vulnerable. Such limbs can carry fire to the structure. Cut them if possible. Single, “specimen” trees are less dangerous if they are in turn isolated from others. Trim the limbs of pines as high as you can reach so that a low fire will be less likely to reach up into them. My personal preference for ponderosa pines near my house is to thin them to at least 10-12 feet apart, also trimming the lower limbs.

–Fires tend to move uphill, so if your house is on a slope, clear extra space below it. Create “defensible space” around your house where there is no tall grass, brush, or low-growing trees to feed a fire.

–Don’t stack firewood or lumber against the house, and rake needles, twigs, and cones out from under decks and porches. Burning embers landing there can find fuel, grow, and catch the structure on fire.

–Make sure the driveway or access road is wide enough for a fire truck. Some rural fire departments have stated publicly that they will not even try to save houses whose owners have not provided “defensible space” where the firemen can work safely.

–If you are forced to evacuate your home, close all windows and curtains to keep the fire’s heat out of the rooms as much as possible. Forest fires do tend to move quickly, and you might be lucky enough to return to a livable house.