Kansas officials teach residential wildfire preparedness
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — The home of Tom and Dr. Christine Sanders in the Jupiter Hills subdivision north of Hutchinson was an excellent example for firefighters and forestry experts. The home was used to point to recently during a residential wildfire preparedness workshop to help a handful of Sandhills residents visualize a “fire wise” home.
As well landscaped and designed as the expansive property was, however, the Sanders even learned of areas they can improve to make their property safer from the kind of fast-moving wildfires that have devastated parts of the county in recent years.
The greatest danger, the dozen participants learned, appeared to be from rows of Eastern Red Cedars that surround three sides of the property.
Though buffered from the home by different methods of “disconnect” — mowed grass, a driveway, stone-walled flower beds and beds near the house of mixed stone and mulch — the experts suggested moving rows of primarily cedar trees even further back from the home and then thinning the ones that remained.
“The lack of fire has caused the wildfire problem,” said Dustin Tacha, a rangeland management specialist for the Kansas Natural Resources Conservation Service, explaining that rangeland fires used to keep the number of cedars down, limiting them to rocky bluffs or areas the fires didn’t reach.
Both decisions to plant cedars to create windbreaks and to douse fires as soon as they started, which Tacha called “the Smokey Bear syndrome” have contributed to the dense growth of cedars in many parts of the county and region.
Cedars create a high risk to homes because they explode in flame when they catch fire and send up masses of flaming embers that spread the fire very quickly when winds are high, which firefighters are often unable to keep up with, the Hutchinson News reported.
“The Jupiter Hills fire (in the spring of 2017) was a tree fire, not a grass fire,” said Dennis Carlson, District 6 Forester with the Kansas Forestry Service. “Flames went 50 feet in the air, which is when the wind becomes a major factor.”
Tacha suggested creating a 100- to 200-foot buffer around the home from the trees, then separating those that remain, so there is space between them, perhaps creating winding paths through the trees. Remove the female trees first, those with berries, to reduce the chance of new ones growing back.
The trees can also be trimmed up, removing all branches within 5 or 6 feet of the ground so burning grass can’t ignite them.
The Sanders have been removing cedars, pushing them back further from their home for several years, but agreed they should thin the dense stands remaining.
District Conservationist Keith Williams suggested several trees abutting the driveway should be removed to create a safer path for firefighters, and a large mulberry growing on the opposite side of the drive be trimmed for about 15 feet up for the same reason.
Cottonwood trees are also notorious for spreading fire if they have “cat faces” or rotted areas that embers can get inside and smolder.
The idea, Carlson said, is not to allow high or intense heat near ignition sources. Having the grass mowed and debris removed, significantly reduces the chance of spread from sparks.
Rodney Redinger, a fire training specialist for the Kansas Forest Service, suggested residents start with the roofline of the home and then move out, looking at what in the path can lead to spread to a home.
Start by considering the type of shingles on a home. More flammable roofing needs a larger buffer.
Next are the gutters. Ensure leaves and debris are removed. He suggested doing the chore in October, after most leaves have fallen from the trees and before it gets bitterly cold. Install screens to keep leaves and debris out.
A spark settling in leaves in a gutter can smolder for hours and then erupt long after firefighters have moved on, Redinger said.
Then start from the ground up to see what danger burning embers might create. If you have siding, does it go all the way to the ground? If so, rock beds, rather than grass, could create a buffer to prevent siding from igniting. Examine the plantings near the house, to ensure there’s nothing that could generate a lot of quick heat.
If a bed next to a home has mulch, consider mixing it with rocks or soil. While course mulch doesn’t ignite easily, on days of high fire danger, the high winds can help it to ignite, Tacha said, just like when blowing on kindling when trying to start a fire.
Next look to ensure brush or piles of leaves that may accumulate in corners or under landscaping near the house are cleared out, Redinger suggested.
Store woodpiles away from the home.
Then look at decks. Rake out leaves that may have piled up beneath them. Take cushions off of deck furniture or remove the furniture all together until spring, when grass is greening up and reduces the wildfire danger.
If you have a wooden fence that goes up to the house, limit the exposure as much as possible.
If trees are other plantings near the house, ensure there are 5 to 10 feet of distance from eaves or soffits. Just the heat from a fire can be enough to melt soffit siding and give fire access to the attic.
“Create separate zones with walkways or landscaping,” which can break up the spread of a fire, Carlson said.
Besides preparing the property, residents should prepare themselves with some advance planning.
“While only 2 percent of properties have a fire happen, when it does the resources are so overwhelmed,” he said. “People are trying to get out at the same time firefighters are trying to get in. That’s why you have to be prepared to survive.”
Agencies are promoting a practice called “Ready, Set, Go.”
“Be ready,” Redinger said. “Be aware. Gather documents or things you will want to take out any time winds over 20 mph from now until May. Then, if winds are 35 miles per hour and humidity is 10 percent, be set. Have your stuff in the car. Go means go.”
If a home is prepared so that the fire risk is significantly reduced, it may be safer to stay in the house than trying to get through dense smoke and raging fires, he said. Just let someone know.
Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com