Like soft gray snowflakes, ash from a wildfire four miles away floated down as I feverishly hacked away at brush on national forest land. While our property was developed for fire survivability, the adjacent forest hadn’t been touched since a fire swept through 30 years ago.
Using a machete to cut dry brush as smoke fouled my lungs and sweat dripped down my face, I wished my husband had been around instead of hunting elk and out of reach for the next week.
Nothing grabs your attention like a wildfire. Seeing towering clouds of smoke rise in the heat of the day and hoping the wind doesn’t send that massive plume in your direction keeps you on high alert. But preparing yourself for the day fire grabs you by the throat and threatens your life and home is essential for survival.
For those of us living in the dry intermountain west, it’s not “if” a fire will occur but simply a matter of “when.”
Fires are a natural part of many western ecosystems, and the person responsible for keeping you and your property as protected as possible is YOU, not a firefighter.
Taking Responsibility for Reducing Risk
We live next to an 88,000 acre roadless area that blends seamlessly into a wilderness and national recreation area. It is a dry forest, with south facing-slopes covered in bunchgrass and draws, ridges and north slopes covered in timber. With these physical factors in place, taking responsibility for reducing the potential for wildfire near our home is essential. Where wild land meets development is known as wildland-urban interface (WUI), and we live right in it.
Fire risk affected the building materials we selected as well as the access we designed. The house siding is concrete composite; the other apartment/shop building is metal only. Both buildings have metal roofs, and the house has manufactured, nonflammable decking.
A large gravel pad surrounds the buildings with sufficient space for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to turn around. Our buildings also have multiple hose outlets on all sides, and, in summer, hoses are permanently attached to one outlet per side.
The mantra here is to think fire before you build.
If you are dealing with a pre-existing structure, replace the building materials you can. For example, if you have a shake roof, replace it with metal. If you have cedar decking, check out the nonflammable materials now available. You don’t have to make changes all at once, but working toward a less flammable structure is the goal.
Home Ignition Zones
Fire professionals refer to Home Ignition Zones (HIZ), meaning your home and the area surrounding it up to 200 feet. Creating space to increase the chance of surviving a wildfire is critical.
In Zone 1 (within 30 feet), remove all dead vegetation regularly and other flammable materials as well. Any plantings near your home should be fire resistant and no closer than 5 feet to your home, and the fewer plants you have, the better.
Keep grass mowed and irrigated. While I have always loved to garden, when we moved to the Intermountain West, my favorite landscape materials became rock and gravel.
Enclose the soffits, eaves, and fascias with gutters, and keep your roof free of combustible material.
Make sure gasoline, fertilizers, paint thinners, and other highly flammable items are properly stored in metal, fire-proof cabinets. You can find these at any home improvement store.
For Zone 2 (30-100 feet) fire prevention thin trees and shrubs to no less than 10 feet apart, pruning, tree limbs a minimum of 10 feet from the ground, and locating propane tanks and firewood in a safe place away from structures.
While we have trees in the pasture nearest the house, all of them have been pruned of limbs below ten feet. In addition, we bring our stock to this pasture first in the spring so, no vegetation gets high, and we regularly rotate the animals to that area to keep grass low all summer.
Zone 3 (100-200 feet) often means working with neighbors or adjacent land management agencies. Our landowner association worked with the county and USFS to obtain a grant to thin trees next to the federal land.
A Community Effort
Talk with your community members, county departments, and federal agencies to see how they can help you.
Money is available for community fire prevention grants. Our community is also a member of Firewise USA, a national program designed to “help residents reduce wildfire risks.” The Firewise USA website has excellent educational materials as well as detailed instructions for becoming a Firewise community.
Idaho residents can contact our state liaison, Tyre Holfteltz, through Idaho Department of Lands for more information and advice.
We’ve had three fires in the subdivision where I live. One destroyed a house in a matter of minutes due to a propane tank placed next to the home. In each fire, the USFS responded with planes dropping retardant because our development is next to national forest. But we were lucky.
A change in wind each time turned the fires back on themselves, saving the rest of the development. But as a result of these fires, we regularly remind owners of fire prevention strategies that will help keep all of us safe.
As fire season heats up, we gather our important papers in “go bags,” ready to grab and put in vehicles if we need to leave. Waiting to gather documents until a fire is near is poor planning indeed.
And since we own livestock, we have an evacuation plan for them.
During fire season, we keep a trailer hitched at all times, ready to load and go. We also know where we can take our animals.
Many county fairgrounds will open their facilities to fire evacuated stock, but you need to know this before you have to evacuate. Go to the University of California at Davis Veterinary Medicine website for a terrific preparedness poster you can print off: type “preparedness poster” in the search box.
In the West, being close to nature means being close to fire. Plan, ahead and don’t think battling a wildfire couldn’t happen to you.