Editor’s note: In July last year we ran a similar story on wildfire mitigation; the information on protecting your own home is repeated here.
The Jan. 24 hay barn fire at Big R served as a reminder that wildland fires can occur at any time of year, not just during warm summer months. The structure fire ignited an adjacent grassy field and burned about 15 acres before firefighters brought it under control. The grass fire spread quickly because of unseasonably warm temperatures, low moisture levels in the grasses and gusty winds. Several nearby homes were threatened and placed on pre-evacuation status during the fire.
The Falcon Fire Protection District encourages all residents, regardless of their location in the district, to do fire mitigation work on their properties to minimize the risks posed by wildland fires.
Drought increases fire danger
In the contiguous United States, 2012 was the warmest year on record; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climatic Data Center, which rated Colorado’s average temperature as “much above normal.” 2013 isn’t shaping up much better. The Feb. 12 U.S. Drought Monitor Report showed most of Colorado under “severe” to “exceptional” drought conditions, with about half of eastern Colorado categorized as “exceptional,” the most severe level. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal outlook for Feb. 7 through April 30 forecasts “persistent” drought for much of the state, including the Front Range. The CPC expects above average temperatures to persist throughout 2013, and below average precipitation through at least July.
The ongoing drought is a serious concern for firefighters. Heat and low relative humidity reduce the moisture content of natural fuels such as grass, weeds, brush and trees. As fuels dry out, they become easier to ignite. Dry fuels also burn with greater intensity than fuels with higher moisture content. Add the wind that is so prevalent in Falcon, and “a small grass fire can turn into a deadly fire in a matter of minutes,” said Lt. Sean Tafoya of the FFPD.
Recent weather extremes have caused snow-covered vegetation to dry out in as little as one or two days. Glenn Levy, FFPD division chief, described a fire that involved tall grasses projecting from an ice-covered pond. “The fire was literally burning on top of the ice,” he said.
Another concern is the potential spread of a structure fire or car fire to surrounding wildland, which is a hazard that increases with warmer temperatures, lower humidity and infrequent precipitation. “Every fire we go on, we have to consider the exposure hazard,” Levy said. Additional water and personnel resources may be miles away from the scene, so firefighters have to work quickly to contain the fire. If the fire has already begun to spread, they have to determine where it is headed and what is in its path. “We have to think ahead of the fire,” he said.
How wildfires spread
Tafoya described how fires can run through tall grass, especially when the grass is dry and the fire is being pushed by the wind. The grass fire near Big R produced flames 3 feet high, even though the grass was only 6 to 12 inches tall. For a time, the fire was traveling faster than firefighting resources could get to it.
Ground fires will ignite brush and low-hanging branches of trees. Fire will then climb upward into the treetops, where it can race through a forest canopy by jumping from tree to tree. Burning trees, brush, grass and weeds all create embers that wind can carry, igniting other vegetation, wooden decks or fencing and buildings. When hot, dry and windy conditions exist, normal fire breaks aren’t sufficient. In strong winds, embers and firebrands can travel more than a mile from their source.
Years of pine needle accumulation are problematic in forested areas. “(The pine needles) can only decay so much every year,” Tafoya said. The remaining needles provide ample fuel for wildfires.
Topography also plays a role in fire spread, since fires travel faster uphill than downhill. A grass fire can advance four times faster moving up a slope than on level ground.
Mitigation is key to protecting homes
One of the most important takeaways from last summer’s severe wildfires is the importance of wildland fire mitigation, especially in areas known as the Wildland Urban Interface, where homes are surrounded by trees and brush. The Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed many homes, but many more were saved because of mitigation efforts by homeowners ahead of the incident, or by firefighters working to save homes during the fire.
The purpose of mitigation is to minimize the effects of a wildfire on property by removing potential fuels near structures, keeping vegetation trimmed and using noncombustible building materials. Wildland fires are unpredictable, so success cannot be absolutely guaranteed, but homes where good mitigation practices have been employed are more likely to survive a fire.
Mitigated properties are also easier for firefighters to defend, especially when water supply and other firefighting resources are limited. “We have to rely on mitigation, some kind of boundaries, either natural or manmade,” Levy said. In addition to the specific behaviors of a particular fire, “We have to make a decision about where and when to (make a stand) based on access, water, available personnel, weather and topography.” Firefighters will do everything possible to save homes and property, but ultimately it’s the property owner’s responsibility to reduce fire hazards around homes and outbuildings.
A primary mitigation principle is to create defensible spaces – areas cleared of vegetation and other combustible materials – around structures. This provides a buffer zone between an approaching fire and the structure, as well as protection for firefighters defending the buildings. FFPD recommends a minimum defensible space of 30 feet from the structure, more if the building is on a hill or slope.
Some tips for creating defensible space:
- Clear all flammable vegetation, including pine trees and scrub oak, within 10 feet of the structure.
- Mow grass and weeds to a height of 4 inches or less within 30 feet of all buildings.
- Trim or remove native grasses and weeds that grow up against wooden decks or wood fencing to prevent a fire from spreading to the structure.
- Remove dead vegetation such as leaves, pine needles and slash piles from the property.
- Store firewood, propane tanks and other combustible materials at least 30 feet away from structures.
- Remove tree branches that hang over roofs.
- Clear roofs and gutters of dead leaves and pine needles.
- Replace combustible landscaping materials such as mulch with noncombustible materials like gravel and decorative rock.
In addition to creating defensible space around structures, residents need to manage the grasses, shrubs and trees that grow on their properties. FFPD’s “Homeowner’s Guide to Vegetation Management” defines the process as “pruning, planting and maintaining your vegetation in a manner that reduces the fuel load of a property that ultimately increases the survivability of your home during a wildland fire event.”
No matter the location of a home, whether it’s in a woodland area or on a grassy prairie, it is at risk from wildfire. The guide provides detailed information about creating zones of decreasing vegetation around homes, how to select fire-resistant landscaping materials and plants and maintaining grasses, shrubs and trees to increase fire resistance.
A community effort
Eight months after the destruction in Mountain Shadows, there is evidence that some homeowners in and around Falcon are paying attention to the lessons learned from the Waldo Canyon Fire. They are taking advantage of warm days and little snow to trim low hanging tree limbs and remove dead vegetation from their properties in preparation for another potentially active year for wildland fires.
However, to minimize the threat of wildfires and the damage they cause, everybody has to pitch in. “It’s a community effort on both sides of the fence,” Tafoya said. “If you’re mitigating and your neighbor isn’t, you’re still at risk.” Residents who choose not to improve fire mitigation on their own properties will endanger their neighborhoods should a wildland fire occur. Fires in municipal areas are usually limited in their size and ability to spread, but fires in rural and WUI areas can spread far and fast. “It affects everybody,” Levy said.
FFPD personnel will help residents evaluate their properties for wildfire risk. Firefighters will conduct a Wildland Fire Risk Assessment at no cost to the resident or property owner. FFPD personnel will also present wildland fire mitigation information at meetings for community groups and homeowner’s associations.
Call FFPD at 719-495-4050 to schedule an appointment or visit http://falconfirepd.org and click on “Request a Wildland Fire Risk Assessment.”
The “Homeowners Guide to Vegetation Management” is also available on the FFPD website.
Wildfire mitigation in progress. Lower tree limbs are being trimmed, and the owners are removing the slash piles visible here.