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Teamwork Heats Up.

In the wake of last year's devastating fires,homeowners, developers, and fire crews are learning the best defense is a joint one.

Two factors--a successful fire suppression policy and western population growth greater than the national average--set the stage for the eye-opening fires of 2000, according to a September 2000 presidential report. And, as soon as the final wisps of smoke started to dissipate, the nation began to redefine its role in wildland fire protection.

The major lesson carried away from those fires: responsibility doesn't rest solely on developers, nor on the responsiveness of local fire departments or wildland fire crews, who put out fires where forests meet suburbia.

Instead, it has to be a community effort. Driving this point home is a workshop developed by the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Program. Unlike other programs that exist for the purpose of fire education, the Firewise Communities Workshop seeks to open the Collective eyes of entire communities to wise planning philosophies.

"Only about 20 percent of this problem actually has anything to do with fire," says the workshop's Coordinator, Jim Smalley. "This is not a fire probem. It's a land-use planning problem."

To involve all relevant entities in a given comnunity, Firewise Communities' list of approximately 30 partners and stakeholders includes such organizations and agencies as AMERICAN FORESTS, the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of County Officials, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the American Institute of Architects, the National Association of Home Builders, and the insurance Services Organization.

Zane Smith, a retired forester who assessed the workshop on AMERICAN FORESTS' behalf, agrees that sense of collective accountability was gained during the session he attended.

Says Smith, "I think everybody walked away Understanding that we bring a lot of this upon ourselves." Smith was pleased with how the workshop challenged the mixed group with an intensive exercise on zoning issues.


For the movement to maintain momentum, government officials, insurance companies, and others must accept their share of the burden. Homeowners also should recognize which components of their property situations they can control and take steps to favorably wield their influence.

Consider which features of your home landscape contribute to the likelihood of fire. Is your home at the top of a ridge? On a south- or west-facing slope (which tends to be drier)? Are your home's exterior materials combustible? Will the landscaping scheme retard or support the advancement of a wildfire?

The National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Program identifies three major hazard categories for homeowners. The first--structure hazards--includes building materials, design, and features, as well as the home's position on the landscape. Vegetative fuel hazards include grasses, trees, shrubs, and other natural and ornamental plants. Such variables as structure density, weather, fire occurrence, and slope are considered miscellaneous hazards.

Spend some time evaluating your property situation and seek the counsel of natural resources professionals such as foresters or Extension agents. Prior to the recent fires in New Mexico, Howard Cady, a Los Alamos homeowner whose property adjoins Sante Fe National Forest, contacted his local Extension office, which in turn put him in touch with forestry professionals. These individuals helped Cady identify the most significant hazards around his home.


Once hazards are identified, steps can be taken to lessen the risk of fire damage. The National Wildland/Urban interface Fire Protection Program recommends the following measures to reduce structure hazards:

* If you're planning to build a home in the near future, locate it at least 30 feet from your property boundaries to give you control over the buffer area. Also, avoid building your home on the tops of ridges or near draws or canyons.

* Use fire-resistant siding and trim. Wall materials such as stucco, cement, brick, plaster, stone, and block are most resistant to high temperatures.

* Use nonflammable roofing materials, and regularly inspect your roof for gaps.

* Install tempered glass, which can withstand greater heat than plate glass. If you aren't able to install tempered glass throughout your home, at least concentrate on windows overlooking slopes and vegetation.

* Take particular care with eaves and overhangs. Enclose these features with nonflammable materials and remove any fuels that touch them.

* Cover all vents with metallic screens to keep out firebrands.

* Don't forget to ensure the fire-resistance of attachments such as fences, decks, or porches.

When it comes to reducing vegetative fuel hazards, flame lengths and firebrands are the greatest concern. In the West, where fires are more apt to crown (or burn in the treetops rather than stay to the ground) firelines as wide as Interstate highways frequently are rendered useless because of the intense conditions of crown fires.

In Howard Cady's case, Forest Service representatives focused on preventing crowning by suggesting he remove ladder trees that could carry the fire from the ground up to the crowns. "Then they talked about the merits of thinning things to the point that the crowns of the trees didn't touch each other," he says.

Cady is convinced that the thinnings on his three acres saved his home during the blow-up in Los Alamos. "Our house," he says, "is here because of what the Forest Service did for us."

Often, the safest landscaping will reflect natural, presettlement conditions. Author and Montana homeowner Richard Manning says of the protective steps taken on his land, "I didn't really take them to curb the danger of fire as much as I was interested in restoration ecology. I had a pretty good idea of what a presettlement system looks like on my particular site, which is a south-facing, dry slope in the Rocky Mountains. It typically would have been a bunchgrass savannah, so we would have 12 to 15 very large ponderosa pine trees to the acre, and the rest would be grass."

Through careful management, Manning eliminated a dense, fire-susceptible stand of Douglas-fir and allowed naturally occurring bunchgrass to become established in its stead.


Perhaps the most difficult part of the process is taking your fire risk-reduction goals to your neighbors. But spreading your commitment is essential to success. As a writer, Manning publishes articles on the subject of forest fires, and he allows local homeowners to tour his property to see the improvements he's made. In response, neighbors are beginning to make similar improvements on their land.

Some people will need to approach their homeowner associations about aesthetics policies. Firewise's Smalley points out that some associations' covenants and restrictions clauses require cedar shake roofs, wood siding, or forested buffers. In those cases, Smalley recommends homeowners introduce the association to the movement already in progress.

"The best approach," he explains, "is to get the homeowner's association educated about the problem. They should discuss the issues of how homes are at risk, the behavior of wildland fire, and the several mitigation strategies that are available. Making a house firewise doesn't mean making it ugly."

With all the resources available to the homeowner, there's no reason to go it alone. Manning, for example, worked closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in planning and implementing his improvements. He also received a grant to help pay for Douglas-fir removal and some replanting.

Begin your search for assistance locally, contacting your state's forestry division, your county's Soil Conservation District office, or your Extension agent. These people will be up-to-date on programs specific to your area, as well as which agencies and individuals are most qualified to deal with wildland/urban interface issues.

Study the websites of the National Wildland/Urban interface Fire Protection Program ( or the wildfire page of the American Red Cross (

You can also ask your state forestry division about the Forest Stewardship Program or the American Tree Farm System. Both provide free technical assistance to landowners.

The teamwork mentality has to begin somewhere, and the landowner is as good an initiator as any. As Smalley says, "Everyone who impacts the problem has a piece of the solution."

Phillip Meeks is a freelance writer in Pikeville, Kentucky.
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Title Annotation:efforts to prevent fire damage to homes from forest fires
Author:Meeks, Phillip
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Previous Article:Spring Renewal.
Next Article:News from the world of Trees.

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