DO YOU PROTECT YOUR HOUSE FROM FOREST FIRES?
by Whit Gibbons
March 24, 2003
The following question from Alabama could reasonably be asked anywhere
in the country with a forested landscape.
My home site consists of a few acres of pine and oak that I attempt
to maintain in a natural and environmentally friendly manner. Trees
and wildlife are left alone. I have glorious woods, enjoy watching the
critters, and believe that I have a responsibility to keep this property,
as tiny as it is, as close to nature as possible. When trees, bushes,
and other plants die, I leave them where they fall, as would be the
case in an untended forest. Natural clutter is the consequence, and
the potential for a serious fire concerns me, should lightning trigger
such an event. Can you suggest an environmentally friendly way of eliminating
or reducing this problem?
I like your leave-nature-alone attitude, but have no easy answer for
how to deal with the buildup of forest debris. I asked Dr. Ken McLeod,
a botanist at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory
who is familiar with southeastern forestry management for some recommendations.
He says, "You may defend your woods and house from fire in many
ways, depending on numerous variables. First, lightning fires are a
rare but potential problem for anyone. What generally happens is that
lightning strikes a tree (the highest point in the landscape), runs
down the tree and jumps to something else as it approaches the ground.
That other object may be another tree, a shrub, or your house, which
may catch fire directly from the lightning strike. To reduce this particular
hazard, you could remove tall trees that are close to your house, although
considering your wildlife interests, you may find leaving them an acceptable
most effective action to reduce the flammable materials on the forest
floor of your property is by controlled burning. Fire was very likely
a natural feature of the landscape where you live, so you could simulate
nature and periodically burn the forest floor, reducing the fuel for
unintentional fires. This is not as horrible as you are probably imagining.
Controlled burns are conducted in the winter, every five years or so,
at a time when the forest floor is fairly damp. Following the fire you
would still have a layer of organic matter (maybe half of what you started
with). A controlled burn can be tricky and is best conducted by a professional
forester who can assess environmental factors such as the humidity and
wind characteristics, as well as how much fuel is present. A low intensity
fire will be necessary to avoid damage to hardwoods, whereas pines are
more tolerant of fire, due to greater bark thickness. Another way to
reduce flammability is physical removal of some dead material on the
dramatic ways to protect a house from forest fires include not using
highly flammable materials on the exterior. Brick with fiberglass/asphalt
shingles is much less flammable than a wood-sided, wood-shingled house.
Unfortunately, the latter style is more attractive on a forested lot.
You can also minimize potentially flammable plantings immediately around
the house's foundation, and keep those you have well watered. Or you
can use plantings that require little water (Xeriscaping) and use a
nonflammable mulch, such as gravel. In the fire at Los Alamos, New Mexico,
several years ago, houses that were heavily landscaped caught fire and
burned, while those with little or no landscaping did not. The difference
was whether something flammable was immediately next to the house.
firebreaks at strategic points can also be effective. A safe firebreak
is a bare zone about 10 feet wide, such as a road or disked area, with
minimal flammable material. A firebreak helps keep a ground fire from
spreading. If your property is part of a larger forest, a firebreak
might not protect you from a crown fire in which the tree canopy is
burning. Crown fires are rare but spectacular, as we have seen recently
in the western United States.
you may have gathered, protecting your property from fire has no simple
answer. Fortunately, the fire risk from natural sources is pretty low."
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