Wild Forest Area

Home fire safety, wildfire safety tips

Text Copyright 2005 - 2009 by Mario Vaden

To protect your family, pets, livestock or house, here are tips to prevent fire damage. Part of this information is on official sites; adapted here for Oregon with additional advice.

Home fire safety photo

Fire safety involves reducing flammable material, but also increasing access for firefighters and fire fighting equipment.

In summer, when vegetation is full, go to the street and see if you can read your address. If you can't, you may need to add a sign, move the sign or make it bigger. Remember, smoke or darkness may make it hard to see your address. Delayed identifcation of a premises means delayed firefighting and assistance.

If your driveway is less than 150 feet long, firefighters can reach your home from the street. Your driveway should be at least 12 feet wide and clear of branches 15 feet up. Curves in long driveways need to accommodate large emergency vehicles. Without access and escape routes, firefighters may not endanger themselves to save your home.

Make sure your driveway has a solid driving surface and that all culverts and bridges can accommodate heavy fire trucks. If your driveway is over 150 feet long, add a large turnaround near the house with a radius of at least 30 feet.

If your trees are predominantly evergreen, often highly flammable, a 10 foot space between the crowns or limbs of adjacent trees should be maintained, minimum 10 feet. 15 is better. This helps to keep fire from jumping tree to tree. From an experiment with a propane torch and pine, I found pine to be especially flammable. Arizona was not near as flammable. Try to ingite foliate pruned from your trees to find out. You may need to remove some trees. Keep at least 20 feet between a building and a thick evergreen tree canopy.

Is there is grass, leaves or branches reaching from the ground to the crowns of the trees continuously, that's an unbroken vertical arrangement of vegetative fuel (especially if dry or of needle conifer type foliage). This is "ladder" fuel because it provides a vegetation ladder for fire to "climb" from the ground to the canopy. Eliminate ladder fuels by mowing, or pruning the low branches off. Try to remove "steps" from that potential fuel ladder within 10 to 15 feet of the ground.

Sparks from a wildfires can ignite firewood piles. Keep firewood piles away from buildings and propane tanks. And keep vegetative fuel accumulations away from firewood piles. Those accumulations would be thick tall field grass, sheared junipers full of dead needles, loose dry compost piles, etc..

Each spring, clean layers of leaves and needles that accumulated during fall and winter in foundation plantings next to buildings. Beware of keeping flammable coniferous hedges near buildings or fuel tanks. Flammable hedges include arborvitae, juniper, cedar, cypress, etc.. Even sheared broadleaf evergreens like boxwood can accumulate a lot of dead dry leaves inside the canopy. It's the accumulation of old spent foliage inside the canopy that increases the hazard.

Consider using rock, sand or stone landscape mulch or material next to buildings - or at least increase the proportion of that kind of material. Bark mulch can burn, so keep that in mind when it's used near a house. If your bark or chipped mulch were to ignite, would it cause problems?

Clean the home defensible zone, the prepared perimeter around the buildings. Remove debris, piles of cardboard, etc.. Place dry compost piles out away from the buildings. Keep the lawn watered, mowed and green. You don't need a short lawn if it's a green lawn. And, taller grass will grow deeper roots, often making it easier to keep it green. If the lawn becomes dry and brown, even at 2" tall, that dry lawn will carry fire.

Clear space around propane tanks. Try using green lawn, gravel or sand on the ground around propane tanks. Keep the tanks 10 to 20 feet from the house. Other options to cover the ground around tanks are paver blocks, cobble stone and various types of brick products.

Remove enough evergreen trees in a 100 feet deep perimeter around the house so that crowns are at least 10 feet apart. Prune lower branches of remaining evergreens up to 5 to 10 feet. Trees don't adjust well to removal of more than 25% of the canopy at one time. So this may need to be done incrementally. It's not realistic to raise the canopy of a 12' tall Douglas fir to 10' high. That would only leave a 2' poodle-cut remaining on top.

When updating your home, try less flammable materials such as brick, stone and metal for roofing or siding; or concrete / paver stone patios instead of wood decks.

Inspect your chimney annually for cracks. Clean fireplaces and stove chimneys at least annually. Check more often if an expert or manufacturer recommends to.

Clean the roof and gutters of leaves, needles, catkins, acorns, etc.. Check this each season. Look for other accumulations of leaves and debris around the house or other buildings. Enclose soffits with a solid barrier and screen vents with a fine mesh to keep embers from entering.

Heat, outside, from a large wildfire can ignite sheer curtains inside homes through glass windows. Consider closeable shutters for large windows. On the other hand, if those shutters are wood, those could ignite too. If you had time to close shutters, there probably would be time to pull the curtains loose first. Enclose foundations of buildings, decks and overhangs with solid flame-resistant materials to keep sparks out.

Make sure you have smoke detectors on each floor of your home and check them a few times per year.

If you burn leaves and yard debris, consider composting or chipping instead. Both ways have advantages. If you chip yard debris, the material can be scattered as mulch instead of sitting around as a dry burn pile. But if you save some pruning for fall and winter, the branch piles will grow when the climate is moist and relatively free from fire danger.

Ignite your recreational fires in a pit or container and completely extinguish them before leaving. Before lighting any outdoor fire, check local regulations.

Do not dispose of ashes until they are cold to the touch. In fact, it can be better to dispose of cold ashes in a soil garden area that has no flammable compost. Most ashes are a good liming material, and most gardens can use a light dose of liming material anyway. Even a green lawn could handle a few fine ashes. Sprinkle them on and rake them in. Then water. You'll barely even notice after a few days.

Store gas, oil rags and flammable materials in approved cans.

Are there any branches close to power lines? Ask the power company to remove them. If not the power company, contact a tree service. Many are certified for work around utility electric lines.

Make sure that motorized garden equipment, like mowers and chainsaws have proper functioning spark arrestors. Almost all come with these already. In fact, as the arrestor screens clog with use, it's usually a sneaky malfunction that prevents the machine from running properly. Therefore, some people open the mufflers and discard the screens which are not needed for the running of the engine only. So, if you clean your spark screens, it's recommended that you reinstall them. If your small motorized equipment was being used only at a lush green country club under full irrigation, this may not seem so critical, but in the country or at residential lots with some dry grass or vegetation, it's quite important to arrest muffler sparks.

You may want to plan the use of your motorized equipment. Using a mower on green grass in the summer almost escapes the need for planning. But if there are trees you want to thin dead wood from near grassy vegetation, you may want to prune / trim there in fall or winter if you will use a chainsaw. Why save that project until summer when the grass turns brown and dry if it's not a need to wait?

In many southern Oregon areas, the dry season is longer than the upper Willamette Valley. Even up north, it's wise to avoid stacking burn piles during the dry season. But down south, its even more important to wait until near autumn to start building burn piles.

Be careful to avoid use of trees and shrubs with canopies that retain a lot of natural flammable fuel (the spent dry foliage). Or, if those are utilized, plant them away from buildings.

There are many evergreens that become very dense and retain pound-after-pound of dead dry needles. When these ignite, the fire growth is just a step short of "explosive". These produce a fire that can be difficult or impossible to contain with a garden hose depending on the size. If these ignite at night, the fire can spread rapidly from tree to tree and from tree to building.

When flammable shrub canopies are under evergreens or other plants with dead debris, that can produce a ladder effect allowing flames to climb from level to level - from a shorter flammable canopy to a higher flammable canopy. If dense evergreens like mugho pines are to be used in a landscape setting, place them away from buildings and don't group them close together in large plantings (primarily in hot climates). Alberta spruce and other conifers that accumulate "reams" of dead needles (arborvitae, etc.) should not be placed near siding. When these ignite, the fire can cause combustion of fences and siding nearby. This is true of the short dense conifers also.

Other plants - evergreen - are better for use near buildings. Consider broadleaf evergreens such as Camellia, Viburnum, etc.. Boxwood is an option if it's thinned to be open and airy. But sheared boxwood can hold a lot of dry dead leaves. So thinned and pruned, boxwood can be planted near houses, but sheared with stored spent foliage, place boxwood away from structure walls.

If feasible, try to equip chimneys and stove pipes with a spark arrester that meets the requirements of the National Fire Protection Association.

Install adequate numbers of smoke alarm for each level of your home, especially near bedrooms. Test monthly and change the batteries as needed. It's been recommended in the past to do this twice per year, according to a saying "change your clock - change your batteries". But if you invest in good batteries, you may only have to do a check of your alarm and batteries twice per year, but not a change. At least in Oregon, Realtors are now making sure that the multi-year batteries go into smoke detectors before a home sale is completed.

Teach your family how to use a fire extinguisher (ABC Type), and make sure everyone knows where it's kept. We installed several - one in the shop, one in the kitchen, at least on on each floor.

Keep a ladder that will reach the roof for extinguishing sparks that may land on the roof, even if this means climbing and shooting water outward at the sparks. You may not be able to climb on the roof, but try to enable the ability to climb up that high - with the right ladder of course.

Keep items on hand that can be used as fire fighting tools: axe, handsaw or chainsaw, bucket and shovel. Keep hoses attached in several locations - preferrably longer hoses like 50' or 100' instead of just 20' long.

Using fire resistant or less flammable plants is a good idea too.