Forming a Fire-Management Plan

Trooper Tom shares information on forming a fire-management plan for homeowners who may be faced with combating a wildfire on their property.
By Trooper Tom
September/October 1987
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Your last defense will be a burned-back line that the fire can't cross.
ILLUSTRATION: DON OSBY


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Prepare your home and property with a fire-management plan and you can stop a wildfire cold!  

Forming a Fire-Management Plan

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 83,000 wildfires in 1985, and they burned roughly 3 million acres. Those fires destroyed 1,400 structures and killed 44 people. Sadly, proper planning could have prevented most of the devastation. The following plan will help you stop a dragon before it ever gets started.

First Your Home

Start your dragon-proofing by securing your home against fires that start in it or nearby. The prime breeding ground for large reptiles in your home is the woodstove. Installation standards are readily available, and you should observe them. There do seem to be a few areas where people often foul up, though. Heat shields for walls should have a one-inch air space behind them. Without air space, they don't shield much.

Stovepipe can also be confusing. Once you make a wall or ceiling pass with insulated pipe, stick with it. If you revert to the singlewall material, you'll have creosote condensation problems. A lot of people are using stainless steel stovepipe now, rather than the cheaper black steel or galvanized stuff. It lasts much longer and won't surprise you by burning through.

Be sure you have working smoke detectors installed at the locations recommended on the packages. A combination ionization-photoelectric detector gives the best all-around protection from all sorts of fires.

Check your electrical panel boxes twice a year. Be sure that all the wires are tight and that the connections to breakers and the ground and neutral bars are coated with a light layer of grease. Looseness and corrosion will cause arcing, sparks and perhaps a fire. If you have an appliance that keeps throwing a breaker or lights that dim at times, make sure that the circuits are correctly designed and that everything's right in the panel.

Locate an ABC fire extinguisher in a prominent place, and make sure that all your family members know how to use it. (Proper use of a fire extinguisher is not obvious.) In the winter, keep any firefighting water pumps filled and in heated spaces, so they won't be frozen up when you need them. This may be vital when outside faucets are inoperable. And remember, wildfires do occur in winter.

Keep fire department and forest service phone numbers posted near (or on) your telephones.

The roof is the most vulnerable part of a rural home. And pretty as they are, shake roofs are the worst. In fact, I don't see why any insurance company would underwrite a shake-roofed house in a fire zone.

Make sure that all electric service lines are clear of vegetation. Tree limbs rubbing on wires in the wind continue to cause an amazing number of fires every year.

Display your house number clearly at your driveway entrance, especially if your house is out of sight from the road. This will help firefighters find you quickly in an emergency. Then make sure that your driveway and roads are wide enough for large firefighting vehicles to reach your home and outbuildings. Vehicles should be able to pass, and there should be places to turn around.

Then Your Land

To be ready for the dragon in the woods, you need to carefully map your property and plan a firefighting strategy. This will settle your thoughts, and it will help professional firefighters in the area do their jobs.

Topographical maps probably won't provide enough detail, so you'll need to work from either a surveyor's plat or an aerial photo. Your county courthouse may have one or both. Another source for aerial photos is W.A.C. Corporation, Eugene, OR. When you call them, have a legal description of your land ready (again, from the courthouse) and ask for a 1 inch- to - 200 foot scale photo. (A 1 inch- to - 400 foot photo will do, if that's all they have.)

From the photo or plat, make an overlay map using tracing paper, and ink in compass directions and magnetic declination. Use the map and photo to explore your property in your imagination, and then take off on foot with map, compass and engineer's tape to look closely. Match the features on the facsimiles to what you see. Become very familiar with both the real and depicted worlds.

When you understand the lay of your land, it's time to think like a dragon-slaying warrior. Your last line of defense should come first. Vegetation within 100 feet of your house should be sparse and well spread out. If not, clear it. Be particularly concerned about the 100 feet that's between your home and the prevailing wind direction.

If your home is on a slope, the ground below should be cleared even farther — on steep slopes at least 200 feet, and preferably 300 feet, out. Ornamental trees that are well separated and clear of low branches are OK.

Now circle your house just beyond the 100 foot (or greater) perimeter with a cleared line that ties into roads and natural barriers. The line can be a quaint trail so it won't disturb the landscaping. This will be your last defense should the dragon appear unstoppable. You burn out from it before the wildfire arrives, to create a black area the flames can't cross. Flag the line with pieces of engineer's tape so it will be obvious to anyone in an emergency, and pencil in the line on your map.

Next, exploit existing barriers farther out on your property. Maintain roads both for firebreaks and also for access to remote areas. Cut back the canopy over streams so fire can't bridge them.

If existing fire control lines don't provide an adequate distant perimeter to defend, plan to make your own. Follow your property lines, marking a pleasantly meandering trail that averages about 10 feet from the boundaries. Pencil this in on your map as you go.

Then approach your neighbors, explain what you're doing and see if you can convince them to do the same. With cooperation, you can each take on a portion of the work of creating and maintaining a sort of no-man's land. You'll each dig a line along your boundary trail and clear the forest floor of underbrush to the boundary.

Trees in the no-man's land should be pruned to leave open space between crowns and to remove branches for 15 feet up the trunks. Leave nothing that might serve as a fire ladder to the crowns. Clear away shrubs and brush, and let grass grow. This isn't a bulldozed, barren strip; it's more like a park that can be burned off to create a 20-foot-wide black line to stop the dragon. If you're unable to get cooperation from neighbors, you'll have to dig two lines on your own side of the boundary and maintain the whole noman's land.

Include on your map a plan for thinning all the woodlands on your property. You don't have to do the work all at once; you can set dates to do different sections. Then carry the map to the state forestry people, and explain what you're doing. Tell them you want your first five or six acres of thinning to act as a planned fire control line as well as a tree crop area.

Once you've got forester's approval, submit your entire management plan to the local fire chief and ask for suggestions and some sort of endorsement. When you send copies of all this to your homeowner's insurance company, you should get a substantial reduction in rate. If not, maybe it's time to look for a new insurance company.

Editor's Note: Trooper Tom's complete wildfire fighting manual, From Dragon Slayers, is now available. The roughly 60 page book discusses tools, tactics and regional firefighting techniques in much more detail than is possible here. You can order a copy by sending $10 to MOTHER's Plans, Dragon Slayers, Hendersonville, NC. 

Trooper Tom spends his summers as a smokejumper with the Bureau of Land Management at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He winters in Oregon building houses and ponds. Troop's other publications include an article and a book on log building, both of which were published by MOTHER EARTH NEWS. 


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