REDMOND - Fire experts say a low snow pack thus far this winter may lead to another catastrophic fire season - just one year after Oregon suffered through the worst series of fires in recent memory. More than 2,000 fires burned nearly a million acres of Oregon forestland in 2002, according to Oregon Department of Forestry.
Property owners in rural or remote forest areas should begin taking responsibility now - before the growing season - for reducing fire risk, even if they have fire protection, advises Stephen Fitzgerald, forester with the Oregon State University Extension Service in central Oregon.
Involved with forest fire issues for the past 12 years, Fitzgerald is the author of the book, "Fire In Oregon's Forests: Risks, Effects, and Treatment Options," recently published by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.
Rural and remote homes are at higher risk for fire than city dwellings, said Fitzgerald.
"Although you may have rural fire protection provided by a local fire protection district, don't live under the illusion that firefighters will be able to extinguish a wildfire before it gets to your home and property," warned Fitzgerald. "In the event of a large wildfire, firefighters may not enter property that has hazardous fuel conditions, placing themselves and fire-fighting equipment at risk."
Late winter and early spring is a great time to take action and reduce fuels and other fire hazards around homes and property, he said.
To lessen the risk of wildfire, Fitzgerald offers a few simple steps to protect home and property in wooded and rural areas. Most of these tasks can be completed in just one weekend.
- Create a "green-belt" (i.e., lawn) 10- to 30-feet wide around your home.
- Landscape with fire-resistant plants in both irrigated and non-irrigated portions of your landscape.
- Clean and remove conifer needles and other debris from your roof and gutters annually.
- Prune trees up to eight to 10 feet to eliminate "fuel ladders." You can vary the pruning height so your trees are more natural appearing.
- Reduce the number of native shrubs under trees and in non-irrigated portions of your property.
- Thin trees so there is about 10 feet between tree crowns; clean up thinning debris. Consider removing trees up against your house or with branches overhanging the roof, or at least prune branches up so they are not in contact with the side of the house or roof.
- Keep firewood stacked 30 feet away and uphill from your home.
- Replace a wood shake roof with a fire-resistant roof as soon as possible or feasible.
One challenge homeowners face when cleaning up their property is what to do with all the debris. Options include burning small piles, chipping the material or bringing the debris to your local landfill. Contact local fire departments for burning regulations before you strike a match, advises Fitzgerald.
Portable chippers can be rented to grind up woody debris. The chipped material can then be spread out on the soil surface beneath your trees, used as landscape mulch or spread on a garden path.
Some county landfills offer "free days" for bring in yard debris. The landfill then chips the material to make large batches of mulch used by public works departments and others. Check with local county landfills to see if they offer such a program.
Think fire prevention when planning a new home in a forested area, advises Fitzgerald. Use fire-resistant siding and non-combustible composition, tile or metal roofing materials. Limit the amount of deck area because hot embers can ignite wooden decks. Build on a level portion of your property when possible (fire burns faster on slopes). Install alternative water (e.g. cistern or pond) sources for firefighters because electric power often fails or is shut off during a fire making your well and outside faucets useless.
Create adequate access to your property for fire-fighting equipment to enter and exit easily. Check with local fire protection districts for entrance/exit standards. Don't forget to display reflective address numbers where your driveway meets the street. Most local fire departments have reflective address signs available. For more information on wildfire prevention, Fitzgerald suggests these websites:
- Firewise: http://www.firewise.org/
- Oregon Dept. of Forestry: http://www.odf.state.or.us/
- Colorado State Forestry Service: http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CSFS/homefire.html
- U.S. Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/land/#fire
- Fire-Resistant Plant List for Oregon: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/deschutes/FireResPlants02.pdf
- FireFree: http://www.firefree.org
Contact your rural fire protection district office for fire-related information and burning regulations. Local field offices of the Oregon Department of Forestry and your local county office of the OSU Extension Service can also help provide additional information or help direct you to other sources of information.