Did you hear a loud whooshing sound when the rains began this past weekend? If so, it was probably a collective sigh of relief by fire marshals and emergency workers throughout New England. We had a bad few weeks of drought. With any luck, it's over, but time will tell. We were at heightened fire risk because there is a high level of dry, felled tree debris from the freak Halloween storm and some high wind events over the winter.
Wildfires are fires that start outside developed areas. Also known as brush fires, grass fires, vegetation fires and Smokey the Bear's nemesis, forest fires, uncontrolled wildfires have been making headlines in recent years as they devastate increasingly large portions of the USA. Wildfires have long been a huge issue for the Western states, but widespread drought conditions over the last few years have made them a real hazard on the East coast as well. Many New Englanders were startled by the odor of smoke and the pall in the air from last May's huge Quebec fires. And this season has begun ominously with the recent spate of wildfires up and down the East coast.
A wildfire differs from other fires by its extensive size, the speed at which it can spread out from its original source, its potential to change direction unexpectedly, and its ability to jump gaps such as roads, rivers and fire breaks. The primary cause of wildfires in the US is lightning, although many wildfires are attributed to human sources such as arson, discarded cigarettes, sparks from equipment, and power line arcs. Prolonged drought dramatically increases the risk of wildfires, as underbrush becomes tinder dry. The past winter saw record low amounts of snowfall in New England, leading to much dryer vegetation than usual and an accompanying greater risk of fire. Human development can also add risk factors, as was an issue in last spring's Texas fires, centering around the rapidly growing city of Austin.
While wildfires are unpredictable by their very nature, you can take steps to minimize your risk and possible fire damage. First of all, be aware of any current risk factors. You probably are already familiar with NOAA's severe weather warnings but did you know they also have fire risk watches and warnings? Keep this fire risk map bookmarked and check it now and then to assess your community's risk. The goal of an effective wildfire protection plan is to keep the fire from coming dangerously close to any structure on the property. Any structure or planting that's too close to your home or business can act as a wick, drawing fire to the buildings.
Follow these simple steps to minimize your possible damages.
Roofs: Choose a Class A rated fire covering for your roof and keep the roof and gutters free of debris.
Attics and Vents: Attics and vents can serve as entry points for windblown embers. Cover yours with 1/8 inch metal mesh screens.
Attachments: Awnings, decks, patios and porches can act as a wick bringing flames to the building. Consider taking down any awnings and clearing all decks or patios if the fire risk is currently at warning level or if any fires have been reported in your area.
Windows: Radiant heat from a wildfire can break single-pane windows; instead, choose dual-pane windows with tempered glass for increased protection. Make sure to close all windows before evacuating for a fire or, in areas of fire warning, keep them closed.
Plantings: Be extremely careful with landscaping within 15 feet of your home or business. Avoid plants that generate ground litter from bark, leaves, or seeds that slough off and those that have very low moisture content or small branches and needles that can easily ignite. Regularly prune all underbrush and consider using rock or gravel mulch, particularly directly by your building.
Outbuildings: Storage buildings, trash bins, pergolas, playground equipment, boats, RVs, and other combustible items can allow fire to reach the building. When possible, relocate these at least 30 feet from your home or business. And, while it should go without saying, be sure that propane tanks are located at least 30 feet away from any structures.