Helping homes stand up to wildfire
As fire inspector Joe Conli swept his eyes around Fred Romero’s property, he clearly liked what he saw.
The heavy forest of Juniper Hills thins and then virtually disappears as it nears Romero’s wood-sided home. A wildfire would have a hard time finding a path to reach the house, Conli concluded.
It’s another day on the job for Conli, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection inspector who has been driving the rural roads above Glenshire since April, educating people on defensible space and evaluating each property’s preparedness for a wildfire. Local inspections will continue through late fall.
Conli has been notifying homeowners of an updated state law that increases the required defensible space requirement from 30 feet to 100 feet on property outside of town limits.
“We’re pleased, not only that they talked to us earlier, but they are actually out here taking a look,” said Romero, whose 20-acre property had been maintained by two forest rangers who lived at the home before Romero bought it.
Creating defensible space includes cleaning off roofs and rain gutters, cutting tree limbs around chimneys, and trimming and managing vegetation surrounding a structure. Fire officials suggest a gap of 10 to 15 feet between large shrubs or trees, both horizontally and vertically, and suggest that continuous paths of combustible vegetation be broken up.
In Conli’s six months of inspections he has seen the good and the bad. He has seen homes, like Romero’s, that would likely withstand a wildfire with a little help. And he has seen homes, with overgrown yards and dry vegetation, that would stand little chance if a fire roared through the area.
Romero’s property, with its broken up brush and trimmed trees is a good example of a little bit of work going a long way to protect the property, Conli said.
“We’re not asking people to clear cut their property,” Conli said, referring to a popular misconception he often hears.
Conli looks for clean roofs, vegetation cleared away from chimneys, in addition to the trimmed trees and intermittent brush. No brush should exist within 30 feet of a home or structure, he said.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is educating people of the 100-foot rule this year. Next year they plan to enforce the new law.
“We understand that it is going to take at least a year to get the additional 70 feet of clearance,” said CDF spokeswoman Tina Rose.
Fire specialist Capt. Fred Lopez said more than tripling the defensible space requirement will give firefighters peace of mind when defending a structure.
“When you are battling a wind driven fire that has flame lengths of 10 to 30 feet, a 30-foot clearance would allow the flames to impinge on the structure,” Lopez said.
According to a study by the University of Nevada Reno, a home with 101 feet of defensible space or more and a fire resistant roof has .7 percent chance of burning in a wildfire. A home with the same roof, but with only 30 feet or less of defensible space, has a 24 percent chance of going up in flames.
“If firefighters don’t come along, those structures can have a fighting chance on their own,” Lopez said of the homeowners who are complying with the new state law.
In Truckee, and on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, inspectors are especially aware of the danger that dried and dead vegetation pose, said Lopez.
“The amount of dead fuels is a primary issue up there,” Lopez said. “It is so dry up there that the dead fuels … carry the fire very aggressively.”
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