Defending homes against fire
Ryan Summerlin March 22, 2013
“Fire lives on the landscape. It’s part of the natural ecology,” Dan Schroeder told a crowd of more than 40 community members in Frisco Wednesday night.
The Forest Health Task Force meeting, the second in a homeowners series about wildfire preparation, focused on the topic of defensible space around homes and property.
Mr. Schroder, Summit County’s Colorado State University natural resources extension agent and director, and Paul Cada, of the Colorado State Forest Service, took turns discussing the dangers of wildfire, particularly for this upcoming summer in Summit County and what homeowners can do to keep their property, homes and lives safe.
Schroeder explained that fire plays a natural role in wilderness areas, acting as a restoring and rejuvenating element. With human interference, however, fires don’t burn through as often as they would naturally, which can affect the landscape and how easily a fire might catch.
“We think we can control a lot of things, … but a wildfire is like a tornado, it’s really an uncontrollable (force), and we need to get out of the way,” he said.
So far, Summit County has been lucky, Schroder said, but there’s no certainty that the same will be the case this summer.
Last year, 50 fires were started in Summit County and while fortunately none became a serious hazard, they could have been.
“At any given moment, given the right conditions, … it could become extreme,” Schroder said. “Are we ready to combat that?”
Risks, issues and education
Summit County presents specific risks when it comes to wildfires, Schroder said. One of these is the close proximity of people to the forest. The county is in the middle of what is called a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), a zone where human development intermingles with undeveloped lands or vegetative fuels.
“We all moved to Summit County to be in the forest,” he said. Now, homeowners must take special precaution to protect their property from wildfires.
Another issue that Summit County faces with wildfire preparation is the fact that 60 percent of residences are unoccupied for much of the year. These vacation homes also need to be prepped for wildfire season, and if they are not, they could endanger their neighbors’ homes and property nearby.
To solve this potential problem, Schroder and Cada emphasized the importance of community education. Summit County’s rotating population requires continual and consistent education and information. They encouraged those attending the meetings to contact their friends, neighbors and Homeowners Associations to share information.
The main topic of the meeting focused on the importance of defensible space. Defensible space is the area around a home or building that has been modified to reduce the risk of burning due to wildfire.
“Creating defensible space is basically your way of making your house as safe as possible,” Cada said. “Defensible space, though, is not a guarantee. But it’s the best thing out there to help your house survive.”
While firefighters will do their best to protect homes in danger of burning, they are limited in both time and manpower, and will most likely only be able to take quick measures as they move from house to house. Homeowners that have prepared their property ahead of time increase the chances of the survival of their home.
Cada explained that defensible space is set up into three basic zones. The first zone starts right around the house and extends outward for at least 15 and up to 30 feet. This area requires the most modification because of its proximity to the structure needing protection.
While it’s not recommended to have a large tree in the first zone or near the house, Schroder said that if there is a large tree near the home that the homeowner is attached to, the first defensible zone should be counted 15 to 30 feet beyond that tree.
Grass in the first zone should be kept no longer than 6 inches. Shrubs, particularly quick hot burning plants like sage, are not recommended in that area.
Fire moves quickly, Schroder said, and fire among grass or shrubs can move up to 60 feet in just one minute.
“This isn’t a matter of nuking the landscape around the house,” Schroder said, for those who worry maintaining a defensible space will affect the attractive value of the property. “It’s a matter of making good decisions.”
The second zone extends 100 feet from the house, or about 70 feet from the edge of the first zone. This should maintain “a park-like environment,” with well-spaced trees. The point in this zone, as with all three, is to reduce the amount of flammable fuel available. Zone two is supposed to reduce the speed of a fire as it approaches the home. Thinning and pruning of trees and shrubs is important here.
Zone three extends from the edge of zone two throughout the rest of the property.
The key here, Schroder said, is to keep the trees as healthy as possible.
In areas where houses are closer together, neighbors’ zone twos may overlap each other, which is referred to as linked defensible space. This is why, Schroder said, the education emphasis is so important, as proper defense requires people working together.
“If you guys put together a community, we’ll do your best to help you out,” he said.
Marce Schweri, of Silverthorne, and Emily Tracy, of Breckenridge, said they felt the meeting was informative and gave them some information that they had not had before.
“I thought we were pretty up to snuff on things, but it made me realize maybe we’re not as up to snuff as we thought we were,” Schweri said. She praised the efforts of the firefighters last year, adding that the fact that Summit County “dodged a bullet” last year has made some of its residents complacent.
“I feel like maybe people here get too comfortable,” she said. “I wish the whole county would have been here tonight, to get the urgency level ratcheted up a little bit more.”
The next Forest Health Task Force meeting will take place April 24 to discuss wildfire behavior in-depth. For more information, visit www.foresthealthtaskforce.org or contact Howard Hallman at (719) 491-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.