The following is a letter from Scott Cratty, executive director of the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council.
There is nothing good about a pandemic, and the current situation brings with it a host of new sources of anxiety. But, while we are all stuck at home it is healthy to get outside and be as active as we can be. One positive use of that abundant new home time could be to reduce your future anxiety a bit doing work to get your home and family ready to survive and thrive in the coming fire season. Readying your home significantly increases the chances that it will survive should a wild fire come to your neighborhood.
An important component of readiness that also provides the opportunity to do some therapeutic yard work is creating and maintaining a defensible Space around your home. One-hundred feet of defensible space is not only a great way to increase your home’s odds of survival, it is also required by law. Some of the basics of creating a defensible space follow.
The first five feet from your home, including decks and any other related structures, known as “zone 0,” should be as free of combustible material as possible. Among other things that includes keeping all dead plant material off of your roof and out of your gutters, removing branches that overhang your home, pruning or removing flammable plants (particularly those near windows) and moving any other combustible items such as wood chips, firewood and even potentially doormats.
The entire first 30 feet from your home, “zone 1,” should also be free of all dead plants, grass and weeds (vegetation) and things like dead or dry leaves and pine needles. You should also create a separation between trees, shrubs and any other items that could catch fire.
For the remainder of the 100 feet of defensible space, i.e., “zone 2,” you should cut or mow annual grass down to a maximum height of 4 inches, create horizontal space between shrubs and trees, create vertical space between grass, shrubs and trees and make sure that any build up of fallen leaves, needles, twigs, bark, cones, and small branches is limited to a depth of three inches. The goal here is to create space that is open, clean and “park like.” Creating that space also provides an opportunity to fill some of your time at home studying and planning. Ideally, when you are evaluating what should stay and what should go you will prioritize what is more flammable and/or invasive (e.g., juniper and other conifers, broom) on the “to go” list and look for ways to preserve what is native and relatively hardy, e.g., oaks if you live an in oak woodland area. Good places to begin looking for help in making your choices are https://firesafemendocino.org/the-california-native-plant-society/ and https://sanhedrin.cnps.org/index.php/fire
The following diagram provides an (admittedly idealized) picture of some of the basics of defensible space.
One practice I find helpful is to walk around a property and imagine it from the perspective of fire, i.e., “If I was a flame how would I travel through this space?” As examples, look for fuel ladders, which are opportunities for fire to climb into trees and other high spots where fire becomes both harder to put out and likely to distribute embers more widely. Look for bushes or other plants that are tall enough that, should they catch fire, their flames could catch the lower leaves of a nearby tree. Look for branches of trees that are near enough the foliage of another tree to spread. Consider that flames grow and height and pace as they travel up hill. Then get in there and do as much as you can to eliminate those traveling opportunities so that any flames that do catch are likely to stay put until they run out of fuel. Again, prioritize removing the more flammable (e.g., that pine that is coming up near your oak) and preserving what is native (e.g., limbing-up that madrone so that it is less likely to catch fire from the underlying grasses).
Next time around I will cover some of the basics of “home hardening,” i.e., making your home less likely to catch fire even when flames are nearby and embers are in the air. But, if you are eager to get working on that right away you can get ahead of me by digging into the piles of great information on the Internet. Two solid resources are https://www.readyforwildfire.org/prepare-for-wildfire/get-ready/ (which I borrowed heavily from for this article, including the image above) and https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Prepare/Building/
You can also find out more about the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council (and become a member!) on our web page at https://firesafemendocino.org/
Please also consider becoming our friend on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Mendocino-County-Fire-Safe-Council-514307378595800/
The local fire department came out to our house and did a free evaluation. We were hoping it would help with home insurance rates but it didn’t. However, it was VERY useful. They told us the types of brush that are more hazardous and some stacking tricks. (Avoid Oleander and Rhodies are OK). Yup, it’s time to start thinking about fire season, as hard as that is to do right now.