by Charlene Burgi
We live in a beautiful part of the world, surrounded by nature in many forms. Trees, snow-covered mountains, rolling hills, wildflowers and grasses, open meadows, wildlife and gentle streams are a few things that bring tranquility to my life. However, living close to nature also means managing those elements within my control for the safety of our home and its inhabitants.
This past week the thunder roared and lightning flashed. I first noticed the donkeys growing restless, then spotted a helicopter flying closer to their pasture. A similar alarm stirred within me. What was going on? Soon another chopper joined the first, carrying large containers of water. I didn’t see smoke but could only guess that a lightning strike had ignited vegetation close by. Not long after we saw the choppers, a CAL Fire truck pulled up to the house and the chief confirmed that a tree had been struck. He said the firefighters were putting out the resulting fire about a mile above our property. His words, “They have the fire under control,” filled me with thanks and relief.
These firefighters amaze me with their ability to squelch a fire during red flag days when the temperatures soar, humidity drops and winds whip a small spark into an inferno within short minutes. The close-to-home experience made me think about our responsibility to make their job easier and what helpful information I could share with you. Fires are a threat in our communities whether from lightning strikes or just a lawnmower blade striking a stone and creating a spark on a red flag day. It doesn’t take much.
First, in order to manage the threat, we must assess our property—especially the 30-foot perimeter around the house. Is it free of debris? Are there non-flammable, hardscape areas such as gravel paths or well-maintained, irrigated lawns within that space? Are the trees limbed up ten feet off of the ground? Have you chosen plants with slow burn rates, or are you sporting the latest craze of tall decorative grasses that can go up in smoke and add fuel to a wildfire? If your house is on a slope—where fire can travel faster than on level ground—did you include an additional 20 feet of defensible space as part of your assessment?
Don’t forget your house itself. Are the gutters clear of leaves, branches and needles? Have trees been trimmed back at least ten feet from chimneys and fire pits? Is there a non-flammable screen over your chimney, fire pit or any open flame area? Is the screen mesh small enough to arrest any errant sparks?
Second, assess the next 70 feet of the property. Are the trees spread out so they can’t easily create a treetop fire? Are grasses and ornamental plants growing far apart, reducing the chance of ground fire? Can stone or brick retaining walls be built to defend against fires racing uphill? Does your property abut to open space or any wildland interface managed by someone else?
And last but not least, can fire equipment easily get to your home? Are low branches inhibiting access to tall trucks? Is there room for trucks to turn around or move ahead if needed? Before working at Marin Municipal Water District, I worked with fire departments and CAL Fire assessing conditions for fire equipment access. It was made clear to me that the home with easiest access would be prioritized if two homes were in jeopardy. Make the decision easy for firefighters if the situation ever arises.
The information on this subject could fill a library. Check out the CAL Fire website, contact your local fire department for their recommendations, and abide by your local ordinances. We are in the heat of fire season. Do your part to help these firefighters.