Steve Eubanks: Personal home wildfire safety
The 2020 fire season has provided many valuable lessons about making homes safe from wildfire. I recently had the opportunity to view an aerial video taken after a wildfire and was able to see at least four situations that provide such lessons.
1. Homes in rural areas burned and all the vegetation around the homes burned so intensely that little remained. The lesson here is obvious — any home surrounded by heavy, flammable vegetation that burns is unlikely to survive. In this case, the only real option, unless the home is made entirely of a nonflammable material like concrete, is to remove enough vegetation to meet the widely supported guidelines for creating defensible space.
2. Homes in rural areas burned and the vegetation around the homes was partly or mostly intact, in some cases even still green. The lesson here also seems pretty obvious — these homes were vulnerable to fire due to one or more of many possible factors. These factors almost always involve ways for flying embers to reach flammable materials in the home or in the landscape immediately surrounding the home. In high winds, embers can travel long distances, even miles, from the nearest active fire and when the embers land in a vulnerable location, those same high winds fan the embers into active flames.
3. Homes in rural areas did not burn even though most of the vegetation around them burned intensely. The lesson here is that the homeowners likely did good defensible space clearing and did things to harden their homes against wildfire. Firefighters may also have helped but that also relates to having had good defensible space so the firefighters could be personally safe from fire effects. Firefighters are brave but do not take reckless actions.
4. Homes in more urban, even downtown, areas that burned, sometimes even all homes over a very large area. Here the lessons above can certainly apply — vulnerable homes and/or too much flammable vegetation. But an even bigger lesson is that where homes are located close together, the biggest fuel source for fires are the homes themselves. If one home burns, it creates enough heat to burn any adjacent homes. Fire will continue through the neighborhood until some factor interrupts the continuity of vulnerable fuels. This makes neighborhood cooperation and action imperative in any urban-like setting — having even a single vulnerable home makes all homes vulnerable.
So, what can you do to make your home safer from wildfire? Whether you live in a rural or urban setting, you can do appropriate vegetation hazard reduction and harden your home. Obviously, there are many factors to consider when doing such things. There are good reference materials online that you can consult. And, through the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County website, you can request a Defensible Space Advisory Visit. A trained Defensible Space Advisor will come to your home and provide specific information on actions you can take to harden your home and manage your vegetation to improve the overall safety of your home and property. Advisory visits are free and carry no regulatory requirements. The information provided is for the homeowner’s use only and is not shared with anyone or any organization.
And in either rural or urban settings, homeowners can band together to form a Firewise Community. Nevada County has one of the most effective and successful Firewise Community programs in the nation. There are currently 44 neighborhoods certified as Firewise Communities in Nevada County and several more in the pipeline to become certified. You can also check out this online at the websites for the Nevada County Coalition of Firewise Communities or the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County.
Nevada County is considered by many experts to have conditions similar both to those that existed in Paradise before that community was essentially destroyed by fire and similar to many of the communities that burned in California and Oregon this summer. Taking action to reduce fire hazard is very important if we wish to avoid the human and economic impacts that other communities have suffered. The good news is that it is totally doable. We just need more people to raise their awareness and commitment to reducing wildfire hazard. The tools and expertise exist to make that happen. I encourage you to take advantage — don’t wait.
Steve Eubanks a former forest supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest, board member of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County and a defensible space adviser.
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