Creating wildfire-defensible zones for mountain homes
Defensible space is the primary determination of a structure’s ability to survive a wildfire. If a mountain home threatened by a forest fire is not landscaped with defensible space, firefighters will often bypass it, choosing instead to make their stand at a home where their safety is more assured and the chance to successfully protect the structure is greater. Carefully plan landscaping within your defensible space to reduce the risks of wildfire and ensure the safety of your family as well as the firefighters.
In order to increase the chances of your home surviving a wildfire, two factors have emerged as primary determinants: the home’s roofing material and the quality of the "defensible space" surrounding it.
Defensible space is an area around a structure where fuels and vegetation are treated, cleared or reduced to slow the spread of wildfire toward the structure. Forest fire experts recommend dividing your home area into three zones.
Zone 1 is 15 feet from the edges of all buildings. Plant anything within 3 to 5 feet of structures is not recommended. Use decorative rock and other nonflammable materials instead.
Zone 2 is an area designed to reduce the intensity of any fire approaching your home by reducing the flammable materials that may fuel fires. The size of the zone depends upon the slope of the ground around the home, but typically is at least 75 to 125 feet from structures. This zone should not contain stressed, diseased, dead or dying trees and shrubs, and larger trees and shrubs should be planted sparsely or thinned. Be sure to extend thinning along either side of a driveway.
Zone 3 is of no specified size and extends from the edge of your defensible space to property lines. Thinning is recommended here to make sure dead trees pose no threat to power lines or fire access roads and to reduce fuels within the tree stand.
Like other parts of your home, defensible space requires maintenance.
Make sure all escape routes, meeting points and other details are known and understood by all family members. Maintain a checklist for fire safety needs inside the home. This is available from your local fire department.
For more information about defensible space, visit www.colostate.edu and search for "defensible space," view the Colorado State Cooperative Extension tip sheet at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/NATRES/06302.html, or contact the local Cooperative Extension office, usually located under the county government section of your local phone book. (Information provided by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension and the Colorado State Forest Service.)
Fire-resistant landscaping and defensible space landscaping
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is a good adage for mountain homeowners to keeping mind when landscaping their property. Defensible space can be attractive and natural-looking with proper planning.
Bulbs, garden art and containers add color to a landscape. Decorative rock, gravel and stepping stone pathways break up the continuity of vegetation and aren’t fuels for forest fires. A diversity of plant types and species is visually appealing and helps control pests and disease.
Maintenance is a major factor in creating a defensible space. Grasses should be kept short closest to flammable structures such as the home. In areas where maintenance is difficult, ground cover plants are a good alternative. They break up the monotony of grass and enhance the beauty of your landscape. Wildflowers beds give a softer, more natural appearance to the otherwise manicured look that often results from defensible space development. These beds are recommended only if they are spaced widely apart and away from flammable structures.
Shrubs and trees provide a large amount of fuel for a fire. Planning tree placement and maintaining trees in the landscape is very important to prevent fires that start from radiant heat and surface fires. A retaining wall can act as a physical barrier to a fire and actually help to deflect heat from the fire upward and away from structures. Retaining walls are strongly recommended where appropriate. Also consider planting fire-wise plant materials.
For more information about fire-resistant and defensible space landscaping and fire-wise plants and grasses, visit www.colostate.edu and search for "defensible space" or "firewise," view Colorado State Cooperative Extension fact sheets at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/NATRES/pubnatr.html, or contact the local Cooperative Extension office, usually listed under the county government section of your local phone book. (Information provided by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension and the Colorado State Forest Service.)
Forest home fire safety
Wildfires can strike with little warning and spread quickly. Homes in rural areas, such as mountain homes, may not be serviced by traditional fire and emergency services. For example, most rural fire departments are volunteer. Firefighters are not generally present at fire stations. The number of firefighters able to respond to a fire may be limited, especially during daytime hours during the traditional work week.
Response time may be quite long. Volunteers must reach the fire station from home or work, start the fire vehicles and drive to the fire scene. The fire scene may be quite far from the station. In addition, water supplies and firefighting equipment are limited. Often, the only significant water supply is that which the fire trucks carry. Water shuttles or refill locations must be established and coordinated.
Approaching the fire scene may be difficult. Narrow, steep roads and driveways may limit or even prevent access by emergency equipment. Bridges may have weight limitations that prevent large trucks and tankers from reaching the fire.
For these reasons, fire crews and equipment often are overwhelmed by the task of fighting a rapidly advancing wildfire. There may simply not be enough personnel and equipment to defend every home.
If a wildfire is threatening your area, listen to your radio for updated reports and evacuation information. Do not jeopardize your life or the lives of your family. No material item is worth a life.
Take steps now to protect your home from a future wildfire. Planning ahead can spell the difference between your property’s destruction and survival. Homeowners can do a great deal to prepare their property for wildfire, such as preparing a checklist and guidelines to prepare for fire safety, evacuation and home defense – before a fire occurs.
Annual fire safety checklist
- Thin trees and brush properly within defensible space.
- Remove trash and debris from defensible space.
- Remove trees growing through a porch or other portions of a structure.
- Clear leaves and debris from the roof and gutters of structures.
- Remove branches that overhang a chimney or roof.
- Stack firewood uphill from a home or on a contour away from the home.
- Use noncombustible roof materials.
- Place shutters, fire curtains or heavy drapes on windows.
- Place screens on foundation and eave vents.
- Enclose sides of stilt foundations and decks.
- Use a chimney screen or spark arrester in fireplaces.
- Clear vegetation from around fire hydrants, cisterns, propane tanks, etc.
- Make sure that an outdoor water supply is available with a hose, nozzle and pump.
- Post address signs that are clearly visible from the street or road.
- Make sure that driveways are wide enough for fire trucks and equipment.
- Check with appropriate highway agencies to make sure load limits are posted on bridges and for the appropriate protocol for posting load limits for bridges on private property.
- Install and test smoke detectors.
- Practice a family fire drill and evacuation plan.
- If a wildfire is threatening your area, listen to the radio for updated reports and evacuation information.
- Confine pets to one room and make plans to take care of them in the event of evacuation.
- Arrange for temporary housing with a friend or relative whose home is outside the threatened area. Leave a note in a prominent place in your home that says where and how you can be contacted.
- If your home is threatened by wildfire, you will be contacted and advised by law enforcement officers to evacuate. If you are not contacted or you decide to stay and help defend your home, evacuate pets and family members who are not needed to protect your home.
- Remove important documents, mementos, etc. from the possible fire area.
- Choose an evacuation route away from the fire if possible. Watch for changes in the speed and direction of the fire and smoke.
- Take a disaster supply kit containing:
- Drinking water.
- A change of clothing and footwear for each family member.
- Blanket or sleeping bag for each person.
- First-aid kit and prescription medications.
- Emergency tools including a battery-powered radio, flashlight and extra batteries.
- Extra set of car keys and credit cards, cash or traveler’s checks.
- Extra pairs of eyeglasses or other special items for infants, elderly or disabled family members.
Defending your home
Whether you choose to stay to defend your home or to evacuate, complete as many of the following preparations as possible.
- DO NOT JEOPARDIZE YOUR LIFE. NO MATERIAL ITEM IS WORTH A LIFE.
- Wear fire-resistant clothing and protective gear.
- Remove combustible materials from around structures.
- Close or cover outside vents and shutters.
- Position garden hoses to reach the entire house, but do not turn the water on until it is needed. Hoses should have an adjustable nozzle.
- Place large, full water containers around the house. Soak burlap sacks, small rugs or large rags in the containers.
- Place a ladder against the roof of the house on the opposite side of the approaching wildfire. Place a garden hose near the ladder, prepared as described previously.
- Place portable pumps near available water supplies, such as pools, hot tubs, creeks, etc.
- Close all windows and doors. Do not lock them.
- Close all inside doors.
- Turn on a light in each room and all outside lights. Leave them on even during daylight hours.
- Fill tubs, sinks and similar containers with water.
- Shut off gas supplies to structures at outside meters. Shut of propane supplies at the outside meter of the tank.
- Remove curtains made of lace, nylon or other light materials. Close blinds, heavy drapes and fire resistant window covers.
- Move overstuffed furniture into the center of the house, away from windows and sliding doors.
- Cars should be parked in the garage, facing out. Close the windows of the vehicle but do not lock the doors. Leave the keys in the ignition.
- Close the garage door but leave it unlocked. Disconnect automatic garage door openers.
For additional copies of these checklists, visit www.colostate.edu and search for wildfire, view the Colorado State Cooperative Extension fact sheet at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/NATRES/06304.html, or contact the local Cooperative Extension office usually listed under the county government section of your local phone book. (Information provided by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension and the Colorado State Forest Service.)