Wildfire Preparedness: Make a Risk Assessment, Mitigation Strategy, and Evacuation Plan

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Wildfire is our greatest threat living in the mountains with all the dead vegetation and dead trees providing fuel. Here in Southern Colorado, where population density is less and forest growth is thick, sensible people plan ahead to mitigate wildfire risk. There is an abundance of information available for the concerned homesteader by putting “wildfire mitigation” into your search engine. Here are some tips I have learned through the years.

Firefighting Risks

At our remote location, we still have 18 inches of snow on the ground and just had our first red flag alert, which means conditions are right for a potential wildfire. Sometimes these alerts catch you by surprise, and this one caused us to take inventory to see if any last-minute details were required to mitigate for wildfire.

Any wildfire at this time of year, when our lakes are still frozen, limit available water sources to fight a wildfire. With this much snow still on the ground, it also makes getting defensible fire fighting lines established.

It is hard enough for firefighters to carry 50-60 pounds of equipment into the mountain terrain under normal conditions, but when 18 inches of snow is present, it makes it not only harder, but hazardous for them.

Wildfire Characteristics

The time to mitigate for wildfire is now, even though conditions may be less than favorable. When a wildfire does occur, this is perhaps the worst time to fight it, which is why it is advisable to have tree limbs trimmed where there is no fuel to feed any fire.

Before the flames from a wildfire arrive, the heat transfer is pushed by the wind and precedes the flames. The heat from this transfer can be as hot as 1,500 degrees F and dries out and pre-heats combustible material. The wind can move a wildfire very fast where there is combustible fuel and also blow hot embers far ahead of the actual wildfire itself.

Make a Realistic Evacuation Plan

If you live in a community, it is important to have an evacuation plan/route and if cut off and unable to evacuate, a secondary plan is in order. Our community, for example, is 15 miles long and about 6 miles wide with access by one main road controlled by an electric gate. On all sides, there is no viable escape route.

Our Landowners Association seems to think there is an escape route through the national forest which surrounds a large part of our community. On close examination, that road could be a disaster, since it is a very rough and poorly maintained single-rut dirt road that is several miles long.

If a vehicle breaks down on that road or gets stuck, those behind the vehicle would be very vulnerable. The main road going in and out of the community would be very congested with all the residents, not to mention the incoming firefighters. It is, therefore, necessary that individuals have their own plan in case the corporate plan doesn’t work.

Basic Fire Mitigation Plan

Our plan has been to trim tree limbs up 20 feet from the ground and to thin the trees where wildfire cannot easily go from tree to tree. We have also cut trees 50-60 feet out from the house and have removed any ground debris or flammables, like juniper which is highly combustible. We also have a stone exterior, which does not burn — nor does the metal roofing.

We have a basement that is underground and all wildfire fuel is absent from several hundred feet from our home. We have steel doors so there is little to actually serve as wildfire fuel. We have a misting system that will dampen any exposed deck wood susceptible to fire, and at the same time, not drain our well of water. Using a sprinkler will use up well water in a few hours.

Considering our community and the way it is laid out, it is highly likely that our Association’s plan won’t work and we would be on our own. We have planned accordingly.

Be Calm and Increase Your Chance to Survive

When a wildfire does occur, people will panic and having planned ahead, we will be less prone to follow a person who may be in charge and in a panic. To follow someone like that would be foolish and probably disastrous. Having made preparations ahead of time, you are less likely to make a serious mistake when in the path of a wildfire.

You may have only a few moments to evacuate if  possible, or maybe no time at all. If you have a plan, have prepared well and are unable to evacuate (the best option), then your chance of survival is clearly increased.

Professional Evaluation of Risk

In our case, with only one entrance within a long, narrow community, each individual should have been preparing for eventual wildfire. We have had two wildfire audits where our property was checked as well as our individual plan, and in both cases it exceeded “excellent”. That does not necessarily mean that we would survive, but it does mean that our odds of doing so are very good.

Being caught out in the open or on an exit road in an impending wildfire would be very risky. Also, planning ahead of time and having fuel removed from around our house would facilitate firefighters doing their best to save our home. We have been told that if no mitigation has been done that the risk to firefighters is too great for them to try to save those houses. Some people have not done any and, therefore, are putting their lives and property at much higher risk.

The Time is NOW to Begin Preparing for Wildfire

The time to begin thinking and doing mitigation is before a wildfire occurs. Last-minute efforts could be too, little too late and do no constructive good, plus putting the homesteader at high risk.

We have been working at wildfire mitigation since we first built our home and continue to each year. The last inspector told us he that he had found our homestead was the most defensible in the community, which is no guarantee of safety but is good to know. Evacuation is our first choice, but with our circumstances, we are prepared if that option in not available.

It is imperative that anyone living in a potential wildfire area have their own plan in case those in their community can’t provide a rational and exceptional plan.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and how they have forged our a lifestyle in the mountains go to:www.BruceCarolCabin.Blogspot.com. Read all of Bruce and Carol’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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