As I write this article, Washington State is experiencing the largest wildland fire (Carlton Complex) in the state’s history; California’s drought stands like a Grim Reaper, unleashing over 200 wildfires a week statewide; and Colorado recently observed the one year anniversary of a fire that slaughtered the majority of an elite firefighting crew.
Wildfire (also called “wildland fire” or “wildland-urban interface fire”) is a natural process that periodically renews forest and semi-arid landscapes, and allows certain plant species to propagate. When allowed to naturally occur, these fires thin seedlings in forests, and burn cool enough to be a positive force on flora and fauna.
Enter mankind, and our predilection for building communities on the very edge of beautiful natural environments. Suddenly, the fires which are part of the wild environment are now a threat to our homes, and therefore due to public demands must be suppressed at all costs. Decades of development in historically fire-prone areas and routine suppression of all wildfires has resulted in artificial concentrations of highly-flammable vegetation in many areas which kick up the intensity of normal fires into what we call “firestorms.”
Firestorms are characterized by rapid spread, total consumption of natural and man-made fuels, and difficulty of control. Often wind-driven, firestorms can propel burning embers 5 miles or more in advance of the flame front, creating spot fires in vegetation and igniting vulnerable structures including homes. Firefighters facing advancing fire are forced to do “structure triage,” an assessment of an individual building’s ability to be reasonably defended.
Components of structure triage include whether “defensible space,” a significant clear space between vegetation and the structure, is sufficient; if the roof is of non-combustible materials such as shingle or tile; if there is a water source such as a hydrant, pool or pond available to feed hose lines; and if the firefighters have a viable exit route should they need to evacuate. Other factors can include whether terrain is in the favor of the fire or the defenders, the proximity of combustible materials like firewood to the building, and weather conditions such as intense wind or thunderstorms.
Harden the Target
The good news is that many of the risks to structures can be addressed well in advance of a fire. Take advantage of any programs offered by your local fire department. Even the smallest volunteer fire departments welcome the interest of residents who want to make the firefighters’ job easier.
A walk around your property with an experienced firefighter in exchange for cold lemonade is well worth the time. Trim some brush here, add smaller mesh attic vent covers there, and you see the benefit of a customized risk assessment and a fire crew who knows your property. Here is an example of a wildfire prevention program offered by the Orange County (California) Fire Authority: http://readysetgooc.org/ .
OK, so we’ve addressed the issues affecting your home. Now we have to talk about the safety of your family home. The odds are in your favor that you will have some warning of an increased risk of wildfire. The biggest influences on wildfire risk are:
- “Fuel moisture,” a measure of how dry vegetation is based on seasonal weather influences.
- Wind, which can fan a small fire into a large one and quickly expand the fire perimeter.
- The fuels themselves, ranging from light grasses to oily brush (chaparral) to forest. The terrain in which the fire forms is also a significant influence.
Certain combinations of these characteristics can trigger wildfire warnings from fire agencies and weather forecasters.
The Meteorologist is your Friend
The National Weather Service (NWS) has invested a lot of effort in what are called “Fire Weather” products. Since weather aspects such as humidity, wind, and lightning all have important influence on wildfire, it’s important that you are in tune with these items if you are in an area vulnerable to wildfire:
Fire Weather Watch: “A Fire Weather Watch means that critical fire weather conditions may occur. Listen for later forecasts and possible Red Flag Warnings.”
Red Flag Fire Warning: “A Red Flag Warning means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now…or will shortly. These conditions will contribute to extreme fire behavior.”
The Fire Weather Outlooks for up to a week in advance can be found here: http://www.spc.noaa.gov/products/fire_wx/overview.html .The NWS doesn’t provide personalized alerts to the general public, but there are a variety of private sources that use NWS information to give you fire weather alerts. Local newscasts often include NWS Watches and Warnings in their local weather forecasts.
Your awareness of weather that increases the risk of a wildfire in your area is very important to keeping your family safe. What is your child’s school’s plan for sheltering or evacuating in the event of a wildfire? Will they bus them elsewhere or call you to pick them up early? Are they monitoring Fire Weather warnings? These are all are valid questions for the Principal.
Time to Bug Out
Significant wildfires almost always involve evacuations of residents to a safer area. Residents frantically load up their cars in a rush and leave. Savvy residents of fire-prone areas plan in advance what is most important to take (photo albums, important documents, mementos) and have them ready to go during fire season. A modest investment in a fire safe ($80-$150) assures that even if fire strikes at the most inopportune time, impossible-to-replace items can be safeguarded.
Remember that no one is immune from disaster. The investment in time and treasure in assuring you and your valuables are safe from wildfire is well worth the effort.