More than 100 fires are burning in the western U.S. and over 4,350,558 acres have burned so far (1). More than 500,000 people in Oregon were under evacuation orders, as unprecedented acres of wildfires race across forests, as of September 10th (2). Climate change has been a key factor in increasing the risk and extent of wildfires in the Western United States. The risk of wildfire depends on a factors such as temperature, soil moisture, and the presence of trees, shrubs, and other fuels. These factors have strong ties to climate change. (3)
I live with my family on a ridge in the Southwest Hills Neighborhood of Eugene, surrounded by acres of forests. We are privileged to live here, we love the trees and wildlife, but it comes with an emotional cost for me. I dread the potential for wildfires every summer, until the rains begin in earnest.
A year and a half ago I confronted my fear and contacted a Fire Suppression Coordinator with the Oregon Department of Forestry, and asked him to speak to a group of neighbors. He accepted and did an excellent job of explaining fire behavior, and the importance of maintaining the area around our homes to reduce the risk of fire, to a group of about 14. He recommended the Firewise USA program as a good educational program (4). The good news is that management of one’s home and yard can really reduce the risk of one’s house burning down.
This program suggests to start with making one’s house less flammable (remove flammable material from roof, gutters, and more), and managing vegetation in the zone within 5 feet of your home, then working outward. Both the house and the landscape adjacent to it play a critical role in structures surviving a wildfire (5).
To maintain a defensible space (the area between a house and an oncoming wildfire, where the vegetation has been modified to reduce the wildfire threat) around one’s home, it starts with “fuel ladders.” The term fuel ladder refers to live and dead vegetation which can allow fire to climb from ground-level vegetation into the tree canopy (6). Most wildfires will not reach the crown of a tree if the vertical fuel is not continuous. When fire climbs a fuel ladder and reaches the crown of a tree it gains heat intensity and can more easily ignite surrounding vegetation and structures. Removing ladder fuel involves pruning the lower branches on trees, and trimming or removing vegetation growing under trees. (7)
Wider spacing of trees can also reduce the intensity of a fire (7) and can also reduce plant competition for soil moisture and nutrients, allowing trees and other vegetation to remain healthier with increasing temperatures and drought (8). Other important management actions, which can decrease fire risk, include trimming weeds and grass next to roads before the vegetation dries out, and avoiding the use of power tools with metal blades on dry vegetation during the fire season (9).
Since learning more about reducing our fire risk, my husband and I hired an arborist to remove and prune trees, and have spent hours removing fuel ladders, reducing the density of trees and shrubs, and mowing grass and forbs. We still have work to do before we feel that we’ve managed our fire risk at a level we are comfortable with. We have observed that several of the neighbors who attended this talk have also worked to reduce their property’s fire risk.
If you live in or near forests check out the Firewise USA website (https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes- and-risks/Wildfire/Firewise-USA), and consider reducing the risk of fire on your property. Let your neighbors know about this program. Contact a fire reduction specialist at OSU Extension with questions (https://extension.oregonstate.edu; Phone: 541-344-5859).
Also consider reducing your carbon emissions, to slow the heating of our planet. Both efforts, reducing our neighborhood wildfire risk and moving into a fossil fuel free future, require strong community efforts. We’re all in this together.
– Karen Austin
More Resources for Learning about Fire Risk Reduction:
Here is a National Fire Protection Association pamphlet explaining the projects and tasks needed to protect one’s home in zones starting with the house and moving outward; https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/Training/certification/CWMS/ReducingWildfireRisksHIZ.ashx
Here is a video that explains how to decrease the fuels around one’s home and to limit ways for embers to gain access to flammable areas of your house, by the National Fire Protection Association (13 minutes) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=799&v=vL_syp1ZScM&feature=emb_title
Another video that focuses on how to clear vegetation near the house to reduce the risk of your house catching fire, by the National Fire Protection Association (4 minutes) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=13&v=pfbEcMeYFFA&feature=emb_logo
The Firewise USA website has numerous Fact Sheets – https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire/Wildfire-safety-tips