Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wildfire threat assessment, prevention program

Government experts, local fire departments work to reduce threat of wildfire to homes in the Austin wildlife/urban interface

Leander – Could your home survive the threat of a wind-whipped, raging wilffire as it flings sparks and embers from burning brush at the most vulnerably flammable materials of your dwelling?

Roofs, fences, porches and decks are especially prone to take advantage of the other two legs of that deadly triangle called fire and become ready fuel for the intense heat and blast furnace conditions of the hot, dry winds that feed wildfire after the intial ignition.

Believe it or not, many have not only survived the onslaught of out-of-control wildfire, they did so without the intervention of fire departments.

Government loss prevention experts, fire control sawyers from the Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service educators from the mountain states have gathered in the 5-county Capitol Council of Governments area surrounding Austin to demonstrate the planning and management methods used by property owners whose homes survived in fire-ravaged areas of the Rockies and the Sierras.

With the help of Fire Marshal Joshua Davis, they picked a residential location in a stylish hilltop planned unit development of custom Austin stone veneer homes with composite roofs.

Situated on a rolling prairie studded with cedar and stunted scrub oak trees, the development is an orderly and neat collection of very pleasant homes that could in the blink of an eye become fuel for a solid wall of flame consuming everything in its path.

On the other hand, with some forethought and best management practices, the area can and will be protected from the same threat.

The chosen home is liberally shaded on the south by a tall, spreading cedar that all but obscures the front entrance and hallway that opens to the great room and central corridor of the structure. Its boughs, redolent with the the pungent oils of the species, overhang the shingles and wood-paneled soffit of the roofline.

A deck and porch that surrounds the shady north side is much less than the recommended 30-foot perimeter recommended space from the tree line that insures privacy from neighboring properties. A low-impact lawn with beds of mulch and broom sedge surrounds the structure, which is bordered by a ring of shrubbery that is close and encompasses the stone walls and windows of the house.

All this is easy enough to manage. The government's best sawyers go to work with surgical skill, lopping off overhanging branches and trimming the trees that if engulfed with flame would send a roaring inferno of fire down the dwelling's central corridor and heat the attic from below a roof already threatened by blazes and heat from the overhanging tinder above.

In less than an hour, there are multiple neat piles of debris ready to be hauled away to the landfill or controlled burn pit where they will be disposed.

But the plan doesn't stop there. During fire season, valuable documents, jewelry, cash and heirlooms should be inventoried and stored, ready to be evacuated along with family and pets if and when an evacuation order comes – or before, if one wishes to forego the traffic jams and panic likely to ensue as a result and just leave voluntarily.

Looters won't spend much time going through a home that has already been picked clean by its own inhabitants, says Fire Marshal Davis.

A host of television news crews from media-saturated Austin hangs on his words, following him in a parade and interviewing educators from the government and other firemen in his wake.

To become a recognized Firewise community, cities in zones threatened by fire threat should visit the website, www.firewise.org/usa

There, fire departments and city inspectors can contact liaison staff and arrange a site visit by a wildlan/urban interface fire to assess the proposed site, one that is coordinated with local fire officials.

Firewise pamphlets illustrate the three-zone approach to clearing the materials most likely to erupt in flames within 30, 50 and 100 feet from the dwelling.

The plan stresses the notion that any structures attached to the house should be considered part of the house, including decks, porches, fences and outbuildings. They are known to act a fuel bridges that bring the heat and oxygen into the danger zone if not managed properly.

Literature may be obtained from Firewise Communities, 1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02169.

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