We have gotten a bit of winter recently, but we should not forget that this has been a relatively dry season, and that will have consequences. Without much moisture in plants, we can expect an early start of fire season. The Forest Service and CAL FIRE have already arranged their staffing to cope with drier conditions and earlier fires.
Southern California was quiet in terms of fire last year, which only obscures the fact that it was a terrible year for our southwest neighbors. Arizona’s Wallow Fire, which began in late May and burned over half a million acres, was the largest in state history. New Mexico’s Las Conchas Fire began in late June. When it was done in August, it had briefly shut down the Los Alamos National Lab and also set a record for acreage burned (156,000) in New Mexico.
Unfortunately for Texas, their year was worst of all. Suffering from record temperatures and drought, Texas recorded a staggering 3,959,000 acres destroyed, along with 2,862 homes. Virtually every Texas record concerning fire was broken during 2011.
Probably the worst fire within Texas was in Bastrop County, east of Dallas, where about 1,900 homes burned over the Labor Day weekend. It is important to note that even within catastrophic fire areas, homes survive. Why these homes survive when most around them burn always tells us something useful about fire prevention.
One such home in Bastrop was bought as a retirement home by a couple who had been living in Houston. By their own account, they knew nothing about fire or fire abatement. But also they recognized that since they had bought a heavily wooded lot, they’d better learn. So they asked a Texas Forest Service friend for advice on how to make their home fire safe. Over the course of two years, they implemented his advice about clearing out dead vegetation, thinning the woods, and generally creating defensible space.
So when the fire hit over Labor Day, they were ready. Their home was spared, though most homes in their area were not. One of the most interesting things to me is that the owners created walking paths around their house and within the woods nearby. They had swept the pine needles off these paths and lined them with rocks. When the fire came, these paths proved to be extraordinarily effective fuel breaks, stopping the ground fire from moving over the rocks. Since they had removed the fuel ladders (shrubs under trees, unlimbed trees), there was no way for the fire to climb into the trees once it had gone to the surface, and with the paths stopping the ground fire, there was nowhere for the fire to go but out.
A contrasting scenario played out west of Dallas atthe vacation spot of Possum Kingdom Lake. There some houses had been squeezed into the trees with no clearance. Most of those houses were lost in the several fires that hit the area during the year. Mountain communities in Arizona that faced the Wallow Fire went another way. They successfully withstood the fire because of extensive fuel reduction work they had carried out in prior years.
Examples from big fires continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of fire safe practices. If you have any questions about how to make your home more fire safe, please call us at 659-6208. We will be happy to share ideas with you.