Clearing fire-prone vegetation near your home crucial in drought

March 29, 2005

REDMOND - Property owners in rural or remote forested areas of eastern and western Oregon should be reducing vegetation on their property to lower fire risk later in the season, advises Stephen Fitzgerald, a forestry specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

"It's been dry this winter – really dry for this time of year," warned Fitzgerald. "And it's probably not going to get much better, given the poor winter snow pack."

Earlier this month, OSU and U.S. Forest Service bio-climatologists projected that the drought severity in the Pacific Northwest will only get worse in the coming months and reach levels that were generally seen during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Some early spring rain has dampened the soil and raised local streams, but hasn't significantly changed the outlook for summer.

"Rural and remote homes, especially those that are in or adjacent to forest and rangelands, are at higher risk for wildfire than city dwellings," said Fitzgerald.

Having local fire protection does not guarantee safety from wild fire.

"Don't live under the illusion that fire fighters will be able to extinguish a wildfire before it gets to your home and property," Fitzgerald warned. "Late winter and early spring is a great time to reduce fuels and other fire hazards around homes and property. Think of it as part of your spring clean-up."

To lessen the risk of wildfire, Fitzgerald offers a few simple steps to protect homes and property in wooded and rural areas. Most of these tasks can be completed in just one weekend.

  • Create a "green-belt" – such as a lawn, that is at least 10 to 30 feet wide around homes.
  • Landscape with fire-resistant plants.
  • Clean and remove conifer needles and other debris from roofs and gutters.
  • Prune trees up to eight to 10 feet to eliminate "fuel ladders." The pruning height can be varied so trees are more natural appearing.
  • Reduce the number of shrubs under trees and in non-irrigated portions of the lot.
  • Thin trees so that there is about 10 feet between tree crowns; clean up thinning debris.
  • Consider removing trees up against houses and branches overhanging the roof. If the trees can't be removed – for sentimental or other reasons – at least prune the branches so they are not in contact with the side of the house or roof.
  • Keep firewood stacked 30 feet away and uphill from homes.
  • Replace a wood shake roof with a fire-resistant roof as soon as possible or when most feasible.

"One of the challenges homeowners encounter when cleaning up their property is what to do with all that debris," said Fitzgerald.

Options include burning small piles, chipping the material or bringing the debris to local landfills. Contact local fire departments for burning regulations before striking a match, advises Fitzgerald.

Portable chippers can be rented to grind up woody debris. The chipped material can then be spread out on the soil surface beneath your trees, used as landscape mulch or spread on a garden path.

Some county landfills offer "free days" for bringing in yard debris. The landfill then chips the material to make large batches of mulch used by public works departments and others. Check with your local county landfill to see if they offer such a program.

Think about fire prevention when planning a new home in a forested area, advises Fitzgerald. Use fire-resistant siding and non-combustible composition, tile or metal roofing materials. Limit the amount of deck area because hot embers can ignite wooden decks or use fire-resistant deck material. Build on a level portion of your property when possible (fire burns faster on slopes). Install alternative water (e.g. cistern or pond) sources for firefighters because electric power often fails or is shut off during a fire, making your well and outside faucets unusable.

Create adequate access to your property for fire-fighting equipment to enter and exit easily. Check with your local fire protection district for entrance/exit (ingress/egress) standards. Don't forget to display reflective address numbers where your driveway meets the street. Most local fire departments have reflective address signs available.

For more information on wildfire prevention, Fitzgerald suggests these websites:

Contact rural fire protection district offices for fire-related information and burning regulations. Local field offices of the Oregon Department of Forestry and local county offices of the OSU Extension Service can also help provide additional information or help direct you to other sources of information.

Author: Carol Savonen