While this is not my typical post, it is perhaps more important than my usual writings; wildfire readiness. Commonly, we think of wildfires as something that happens in the mountains or foothills, not in suburban areas nestled on the plains.
As a resident of Colorado, the fact that a wildfire can occur anywhere became an ugly reality. On December 30, 2021, the towns of Louisville and Superior, Colorado were decimated by the fast-moving Marshall fire. Fueled by 60 – 90mph winds, these small towns on the plains east of Boulder were unprepared for such an event. Many were left with only the clothes on their backs. It happened so fast that there was no time to return home to rescue pets or gather any belongings.
In the end, over 1000 homes were lost or damaged, and countless pets, horses, farm animals, and wildlife perished. Even more devastating, was the loss of two human lives. One was identified, and the other, who happens to be the grandmother of a friend, is classified as missing.
IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU
For those of you that live in the west where drought conditions are unprecedented, the threat of fire is very real and very likely, so you must be prepared! Once upon a time “fire season” was considered June through August. Sadly, there is no longer a “season” only the realization that it can happen at any time from January through December.
The attitude of many, myself included, is that fires like these only happen in the mountains or heavily forested areas, not here on the plains in suburban or urban locations, so we have little to worry about. We could not have been more wrong! It is imperative to have a plan in place should a natural disaster occur.
CREATE AN EVACUATION PLAN
Consider the potential risks of wildfire in your area as well as your community’s ability to respond to such an emergency. FEMA offers some very good tips to prepare for such an event.
- Communication! With the chaos and confusion during an emergency, designate an out-of-town relative or friend to act as a single point of contact for everyone in case you are separated. It is far less stressful to have one point of contact who can relay messages rather than calling multiple family members. Cell and internet services could be overwhelmed or down completely in specific areas.
- Establish two emergency meeting locations. One near your home and another away from your neighborhood in case you are unable to return.
- No multiple escape routes from your home, neighborhood, and community. If there is only one way in and out by vehicle, have a backup plan for trekking on foot, bicycle, or anything else with wheels.
- Make sure pet leashes, harnesses, and carriers are easy to find and reach! If you work away from home but have a neighbor(s) that are at home during the day, speak with them about evacuating your pets in the event you are not allowed back into your neighborhood. Predetermine a meeting location. If you have pets that are shy, invite your designated person(s) over often so your pets are used to them and do not hide.
- Ensure that you and your family know where to locate your gas, electric, and water main shut-off controls and are familiar with how to safely disable them in an emergency.
- Always have Fire extinguishers on hand and familiarize yourself with how to use one. Be sure to check the expiration dates on a regular basis. Set up a reminder in your phone calendar.
- Invest in a small fireproof box for your important documents: Insurance documentation, passports, birth certificates, marriage license, and any other paperwork that would be difficult to replace.
- Prepare a backpack for each member of your family with at least three days’ worth of clothes and toiletries. Be sure to take all prescribed medications with you.
- Pack your pet’s food and if you have enough time and space, their bed or favorite toy to ease anxiety.
The most important thing you can do is to mitigate your property. Fire mitigation is the process of removing everything from around the outside of your house that a fire can use as fuel. In doing so you create a defensible space that aids firefighters in protecting your home from an advancing wildfire.
Defensible space is the area surrounding a building where vegetation is either cleared or treated to reduce the spread of fire toward the structure. The National Fire Association provides a plethora of information on wildfire risk reduction.
- Remove all dead, dying, and diseased trees and bushes.
- Trim any branches that are within 15 feet of your home or other structures.
- Branches that extend over roofs and that are within 15 feet of chimneys should be trimmed back or removed completely.
- Trim low-hanging tree branches so that there is a 6-foot clearance to the ground.
- Grasses and weeds that are within 30 feet of all structures should be mowed to a height of no more than 4 – 5 inches.
- Clean roof and gutters of leaves and pine needles at least twice per year thereby eliminating an ignition source.
- Wood piles should be at least 50 feet from your home.
- Do not store items underneath decks.
- Regularly rake and dispose of dead grass, leaves, and pine needles.
- Use 1/8” metal mesh to screen attic, roof, eaves, and foundation vents.
- Between the ground and home siding, create 6 inches of vertical clearance.
Mountain communities and heavily forested properties will need to take even more extreme measures. Contact your local Department of Regulatory Agencies for more information specific to your area. Your local fire department can also offer helpful advice on mitigation.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Even if you tend to believe “that will never happen to me” or “that will never happen here”, take heed; it can, so it is better to be prepared. Having a plan will help you to enable your family, and pets to make it out safely. Proper mitigation will increase the likelihood of your house surviving a wildfire.
Drought conditions continue to ravage the American west with no signs of it ending anytime soon.