Your last defense will be a burned-back line that the fire can't cross.
ILLUSTRATION: DON OSBY
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
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
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