Wildfires in Northern California – Lessons for Ken-Caryl

Wildfires in Northern California – Lessons for Ken-Caryl

As wildfires rage across northern California, destroying homes and lives, the fires leave behind a curious checkerboard of destruction. One neighborhood was reduced to ashes and twisted metal. But houses nearby suffered little more than scorched grass and singed trees. Many of the homes that survived had little flammable brush in the area immediately around them. But others had dry grass and shrubs within feet of the walls. Often, those are the ones that unfortunately were lost to the fire.

The difference between a surviving house and a charred husk could come down to details as small as screens over attic vents, trimmed trees, or pine needles in the gutters. Scientists have gained a whole new understanding of factors that can help a home survive a wildfire. And it turns out that saving a house has less to do with stopping a forest fire cold or creating a nonflammable moonscape for a hundred feet in every direction. It’s more about lots of minor modifications and regular maintenance.

As wildfires grow bigger and more intense—the product of drought, disease, climate change, and buildup of flammable material from decades of extinguishing nearly all fires—and annual federal spending on firefighting surpasses $1 billion, the new science of fireproofing has some experts asking if federal, state and local agencies should be steering more money toward making homes and communities fire resistant.

The tiny embers, or firebrands, as they are known among firefighters are often the culprits. Blown far from a wildfire by the wind, these bits of burning debris can wreak havoc if they collect in flammable spots around a house: a gutter filled with pine needles, an unscreened vent leading into an attic, or a trash can left open against a wall.

That’s different from an older belief—one often still widely held by the public—that a wildfire’s dramatic, towering flames march through a neighborhood, incinerating buildings in their path. But firebrands can shower a house that’s situated a quarter mile or more from a wildfire.

Wildfire home fire losses differ from typical residential fire losses. Residential fires usually involve one structure with a partial loss, wildfires in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) can result in hundreds of totally destroyed homes. Particularly during severe WUI, multiple homes can ignite in a very short time. The usual result is that a home either survives or is totally destroyed; only a few structures incur partial damage.

The WUI fire commonly originates in wildland fuels. During dry, windy conditions in areas with continuous fine fuels, a wildland fire can spread rapidly, outpacing the initial attack of firefighters. If residences arc nearby, a wildland fire can expose numerous homes to firebrands. A rapidly spreading wildland fire coupled with highly ignitable homes can cause many homes to burn simultaneously. This wildfire involving many homes can overwhelm fire protection capabilities. Severe WUI fires can destroy whole neighborhoods in a few hours. Whether a home survives depends initially on whether it ignites; if ignitions with continued burning occur, survival then depends on effective fire suppression. Home survival begins with attention to the factors that influence ignition.

Each year more Americans move into WUI: zones, including Ken-Caryl Ranch and Valley, where human habitation meets forests or grasslands. Many wildfires start in such places; under the right conditions, flames or embers can easily spread to nearby homes. Fortunately, there are ways to make a house in those zones less vulnerable to fire, from the choice of building materials to the landscaping decisions:

1. Improve the Roof – Fire-resistant ceramic tiles, slate or composition shingles, and metal sheets provide better protection than wood.
2. Seal Off Openings – Put metal screens over vents and other openings to block embers.
3. Prune Branches – Flames can jump from branches hanging over the roof of the house.
4. Mow the Lawn – Keep grass short and well-watered to hinder the spread of flames.
5. Pick Up Debris – Remove leaf litter and pine needles from gutters and remove dead limbs from around the house.
6. Lighten Landscaping – Spacing out trees and shrubs makes it harder for flames to travel and easier for firefighters to work.

The Ken-Caryl Firewise Committee urges you to take steps toward improving fire safety in your home. More information is available at firewise.org.

This article was published in the Oct. 18, 2017 Life at Ken-Caryl Newspaper.


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