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Is Your Property Fire Safe? : River Valley edition : Monday, 27 January 2020 17:37 EST : a service of The Public Press
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Prediction is very
difficult, especially
about the future.
– Niels Bohr

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Is Your Property Fire Safe?

     by Marla Benoist

by Marla Benoist

Creating a defensible space means a well-maintained landscape that can enhance the beauty and value of any property while also serving as a fuel break. The goal is to keep your landscape lean, clean and green.

High on the list of priorities for property owners in the Northwest should be creating defensible space around their properties before fire season. After last years devastating wildfires in California, homeowners should be on high alert and inspecting their properties for fire safety. As a community we need to work together and educate ourselves and our neighbors about maximizing fire protection.

Wildfires are unpredictable, often the result of accidents, arson or lightening. During summer months hot, windy and dry weather heightens fire danger. Further concerns are the results of climate change modeling for the Pacific Northwest predicting seasons of increased precipitation followed by extreme drought. Precipitation causes heavier vegetative growth that increases the fuel load for a wildfire if it ignites during drought periods. These conditions cause runaway fires that destroy property and wildlife habitat, worsen air and water quality, cause floods and mud slides, drive up the costs of firefighting and insurance, and worst of all, cost lives. Nearly all of these negative impacts can be avoided by creating a &defensible space.&

Defensible Space

Defensible space is the common term used by the forestry department to describe the conversion of urban and suburban properties into less-volatile zones with the intent to facilitate granting fire fighters easy access to properties. This practice further evolved in 1997 with the Oregon Forestland Urban Interface Fire Protection Act (also referred to as SB360). quiet zone

The legislation defines a homeowner's legal obligation to maintain their property according to state guidelines. Fire-risk classifications are applied to the properties ranging from &low& to &extreme.& These classifications are then used to evaluate the size of a fuel break needed around a structure. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) sends property owners a letter of notification for clean up when conditions are deemed unsafe. In 2004, 12,000 notifications were mailed out but only 2,000 certifications were filed in response by homeowners who had taken corrective measures.

A Proactive Community Effort

It is important to understand that the condition of your property directly affects your neighbor. An un-maintained property with combustible vegetation can fuel a wildfire causing loss of homes and costly damage. When a severe wildfire spreads, it can expose dozens of homes to fire simultaneously, making it difficult for firefighters to defend every home.
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Homeowners who take proactive steps to reduce the likelihood of ignition during a wildfire can improve their homes' survivability. While firescaping your property cannot guarantee 100 percent fire protection, it absolutely lessens the impact should a fire pass over your property.

Have Your Home Inspected

A homeowner can request a site visit from the forestry department. An ODF staff member will assess the status of your property using a checklist. Homeowners have the option of doing the clean up themselves or hiring a professional landscape contractor or forestry professional (a list is provided by the ODF). If the property owner wants to create a fire resistant landscape that is aesthetically attractive, then a landscape designer is appropriate to offer advice on planting alternatives, as well as overall design.

After the property is cleared according to guidelines, a certificate is signed by the property owner and filed with the forestry department. This certificate is kept on file for five years and protects the property owner against future liability in the event a fire starts on their property and spreads. Without certification, the state of Oregon may seek to recover certain fire suppression costs from a property owner if a fire originates on their property and fuel reduction standards have not been met. Contact ODF or your local fire district to schedule an annual wildfire prevention visit. It's free.

Community Approach

Don't take a passive approach to fire safety get involved. Since wildfires affect entire neighborhoods, the best defense is to educate yourself and neighbors as to how to make your neighborhood FireWise. Have a neighborhood plan and work together to eliminate materials that will assist a fire in spreading.

Starting a community-wide wildfire awareness task force is a great way to get neighbors together to work on making your local community safe. Dedicate one week each spring to bring the message of defensible space and wildfire preparedness to your neighbors and then figure out ways to help each other make your neighborhood safer. Providing assistance to the elderly and needy with fuels reduction is a smart move that protects both their property and yours.

Establishing a community brush disposal site is a great project. Material can be chipped and bagged for mulch, with the expense of a chipper shared by the neighborhood. With proper precautions and permits, brush can also be burned on site, but make sure to follow all local rules for burning and avoid burning if possible in areas where air quality is a concern. Other community-based ideas are to develop a defensible space demonstration project, and work with insurance representatives and legislators for incentives to homeowners to create defensible spaces.

Marla Benoist is a landscape designer and the owner of Marla Benoist Landscape Design. She offers consultation services and can be reached at 541-761-9084 or by e-mail at MBLandscapedesign@live.com.

For more information about fire safe guidelines and the Oregon's Fire Protection Act call: Derick Burns or Brian Ballou at (541) 664-3328 in Jackson County, or call Dan Gallagher or Kyle Holcombe at (541) 471-4248 in Josephine County

Improve Your Chances of Surviving a Wildfire

Many of the measures that you can take to protect your home are common sense, and fairly simple to do yourself. A few general tips are:

  • Provide adequate clearance and access for firefighters to easily reach the home. A driveway width of a minimum of 12 to 14 feet with vertical clearance of 15 feet allows fire trucks to enter a property easily. A distance of 30 feet around a house is the minimum clearance for removing flammable vegetation, although many fire professionals recommend 50 to 100 feet depending on the property's classification of low to extreme.
  • Eliminate woody and dry plants and break up thickets of blackberry, buckbrush and other highly flammable vegetation. Many homeowners mistakenly think that blackberries and other shrubby plants that are green should be a safe bet. However, many of these plants, especially many of those with leaves that are aromatic (strong smell when crushed), contain high amounts of volatile waxes, terpenes, oils, and pitch, making them deceptively dangerous and hot burning when ignited.
  • Keep dry grass mowed. Dry grass is the number one carrier of wildfire. Keeping it cut along roadsides, driveways, and around structures will significantly reduce the chance of fire endangering a home.
  • Maintain your trees and plantings. Trees branches should be removed to maintain a distance of 6 to 10 feet from the ground. Spacing plants widely and selective thinning hinders a fires' ability to travel easily.
  • Safely store dry wood. Before fire season starts, put firewood and lumber piles into an enclosed building, or move them a good distance from any structure.
  • Fireproof your home and other structures. Replace flammable construction materials, such as wooden roof shakes, with fire-resistant materials. Clear out your gutters each year, and consider investing in a gutter protection system. Leaves and debris that collect in gutters easily ignites and will spread the fire quickly to your home if not removed before dry weather.

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