If You Live in the Wildland Fire Zone, Repeat After Me: Defensible Space is Essential

Here is a link to an article by Char Miller.. below is an excerpt.

These are not random queries. In a 2007 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report that assessed the fire-sparking nature of housing in the wildand-urban interface, its authors concluded that since “houses are much more flammable per square yard than forests, homes that erupt in flames can propel forest fires to a critical intensity threshold much more quickly.”

This lesson too easily can be applied to the 2007 megafires that ripped through neighborhoods from San Diego north through the San Gabriels and to the Tea Fire, which in November 2008 consumed more than 200 high-end homes in Montecito.

“The message here is that fireproofing homes not only preserves structures, but limits the size of forest fires,” the NAS report asserted, protecting the people who live in these homes and “their neighbors and ultimately the forests.”

Cleaning up the “home ignition zone,” a term employed in a just-released U.S. Forest Service analysis about the role burning houses play in spreading wildfires, must come coupled with a resolute fireproofing of the surrounding landscape.

How many trees and plants crowd up against your home? How much open space extends from your foundation to the property line, to wherever the Manzanita, Chaparral or cactus, oaks or pine start to thicken? Statewide building codes that California adopted in 2007 require a cleared swath running out at least 100 feet. CAL FIRE calls this “fuels modification,” the purpose of which is “to create a defensible space for firefighters and to protect…homes from wildfires.”

Had such space been cleared around homes in the fire-ravaged Yarnell Hill subdivisions, the Granite Mountain Hotshots might not have been placed in such immediate danger (and a recent investigation directly blames the Arizona Division of Forestry for sending these men, already exhausted from their exertions battling other fires across the west, into this fatal fight).

Yet too few of the homes the crew was sent to protect had been fireproofed or had the requisite defensible space. In a post-fire accounting, the Pacific Biodiversity Institute found that “89 percent of the homes and other structures appeared to be in direct contact with trees or shrubs,” and 30 percent of these burned. Of the small number of those dwellings that had been made defensible, only five percent were consumed.

The conclusion was easy to draw: “The contrast between these two structure survival rates is substantial and illustrates that simple and inexpensive measures, like keeping flammable vegetation away from homes, can have a real impact on the ability of a home to survive a wildfire.”

Because no one wants another Yarnell Hill disaster on their conscience, now is the time to evaluate our place in this inflammable place, to admit our inescapable responsibility for those firefighters and other first-responders who someday might hustle uphill to defend our bodies and homes. The first step in this process is to make a close inspection of our home grounds and neighborhoods, a simple life-saving act that could have profound ramifications for a safer new year.

My only thought is that I think almost all residents have heard this and thought about it, but some do not want to do it. I know there are many sociology papers out there about that. So we know it, we understand people’s motivations. We all agree that the behavior needs to be changed, but for some reason are hesitant to use the power of law.

I also don’t know about the Yarnell equivalency because I don’t know the details. But it seems to me you would still dispatch people to a subdivision, even if all the homes were treated. Or maybe the fire wouldn’t have grown so big to be worried about if other people had treated? It’s not clear to me.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks Alex! This is a great video.. I like the aerials that show the communities. It also showed ideally how the treatments around communities and within communities work together.. it seems like a “both and” not an “either or” thing to me.

  2. Yarnell fatalities had nothing to do with fuels, homes, fire proofing, but was all about personnel management, equipment management, and systems failures within the fire fighting command and control structure. Bad fire personnel management decisions kill good intentioned people. Communications, location, weather forecasting and reporting, all are critically important safety tenets.

    As an aside, new generation marine vhf radios are required to be gps enabled, so that any distress channel calls come with a gps location instantly. And so will replying communications. How simple would it be to have all fire fighting radios sending a concurrent gps location with every transmission? That is doable technology. There are a dozen manufacturers making those radios right now. Air tankers can have the exact position of the emergency caller right on their navigation screen. Incident Command can know exactly where everyone is at every communication in real time.

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