2015 25.4 Stumped on the Farm

Surviving the Fires

Dear Stumped,
My organic farm and home were scorched though luckily not burned by the Okanogan Complex Fire this summer season. What can I do now to better protect my home and land from wildfires next summer?
~Concerned and Wondering What To Do

Dear Wondering,
Congratulations on surviving the voracious fire that consumed large quantities of the Okanogan. It is indeed a challenge to know where one’s energies are best spent and, all too frequently, it feels like it is going for naught when the flames approach. Yet, defensible space is a concept that bears implementing.

What is defensible space?
Creating defensible space is essential to improve your home’s chance of surviving a wildfire. It’s the buffer you create between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any surrounding wildland. This space can slow or stop the spread of wildfire and it protects your home from catching fire— either from direct flame contact or radiant heat. Defensible space is also important for the protection of firefighters defending your home. You can find more information here from the Washington State Deptartment of Natural Resources.

If you approach your “defensible space” as two distinct areas, each extending from your home or outbuildings, you can get to work making safer boundaries against wildfires.

Defensible Space, Close-In
The first area of defensible space around your house or buildings extends 30 feet. In this area you should:

  • Remove all dead vegetation: plants, grass and weeds.
  • Remove dead or dry leaves and pine needles from your yard, roof and rain gutters.
  • Trim trees regularly to keep branches a minimum of 10 feet from other trees.
  • Remove branches that hang over your roof and keep dead branches 10 feet away from your chimney.
  • Relocate wood piles to 100 feet away from the house.
  • Remove or prune flammable plants and shrubs near windows.
  •  Remove vegetation and items that could catch fire from around and under decks.
  • Create a separation between trees, shrubs and items that could catch fire, such as patio furniture, wood piles, swing sets, etc.

Defensible Space, Wide-Range
The second area is 100 feet from your house or outbuildings.

  • Cut or mow annual grass down to a maximum height of four inches, if you have grass at all.
  • Create horizontal spacing between grass, shrubs and trees. The spacing needed is determined by the type and size of brush and trees, as well as the slope of the land. For example, a property on a steep slope with larger vegetation requires greater spacing between trees and shrubs than a level property that has small, sparse vegetation. Spacing between grass, shrubs, and trees is crucial to reduce the spread of wildfires.
  • Create vertical spacing between grass, shrubs and trees: remove all tree branches at least six feet from the ground. Allow extra vertical space between shrubs and trees. Lack of vertical space can allow a fire to move from the ground to the brush to the tree tops like a ladder.
  • Remove fallen leaves, needles, twigs, bark, cones, and small branches.

Fire-safe landscaping isn’t necessarily the same thing as a well-maintained area. Fire-safe designing uses fire-resistant plants that are strategically planted to resist the spread of fire to your home. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to make your area fire-safe, and it can also conserve water.

I know I spent the days before the fire onslaught cutting out a large juniper that spread 12 feet across but was located at the corner of our house. I think I’ll go for a metal sculpture now; it won’t burn. I also cleared all the pine needles off our metal roofs, although it was a dilemma figuring out where to put the wheelbarrows full of needles so it wouldn’t attract the fire’s embers.

Now, after the wildfires have subsided, you might need to be mindful of the potential for flooding if there is precipitation. The ash on the ground and loss of plants to hold the soil combine to create quite a hazard. Reach out to your local conservation district to address erosion, replanting, and other concerns you might have in the aftermath of the fire.

Carey Hunter ranches in the Okanogan on Pine Stump Farms with her partner Albert Roberts. After the wildfires of summer, the timber they have been curating for 26 years is radically impacted, probably at an 80 % loss. 509-826-9492, [email protected]. www.pinestumpfarms.com.

For more information on how to protect your property from wildfire, visit the Firewise Communities Program website. Be sure to check with your local conservation district for wildfire preparedness programs as well.

Opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect views held by Tilth Producers board, staff or members.

Tags: defensible space, Fire, risk management, wildfire