Learning to Reason with the Wildfire Season

By Leland Rucker

DENVER, Colorado, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - Wildfire is something that most people who live in remote areas are still coming to grips with. The devastating fires of 2002, which consumed more than seven million acres of U.S. land, brought the issue ever closer, literally, to the homes of thousands of mountain and foothill residents here and in Canada.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, forecasts that the 2003 fire season for May through September may not be as severe as it was in 2002, though much of the interior West, south central Alaska, parts of California, the western Great Lakes states and northern Maine could experience an difficult fire season.

Long term drought and insects have damaged vegetation and increased the potential for large, destructive wildfires at middle and high elevations in these regions, fire officials say. In addition, an early spring prescribed fire season is expected across many western states. Intended to rid the woods of combustible fuels, prescribed burns sometimes get out of hand, as one did in 2000 at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

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Wildfire threatens a home in Austin, Texas (Photo courtesy City of Austin)
People living in regions where wildfires have become a fact of life now have a new tool to help secure their lives and properties - a newly published book that gathers valuable wildfire information together in one place.

Janet Arrowood's "Living With Wildfires: Prevention, Preparation and Recovery" arrives from Bradford Publishing just in time for this year's fire season with 168 pages of practical tips, instructions, facts, lists, history, background and other sources of information about how to prevent, plan for and survive wildfires.

Arrowood, who lives in the foothills west of Denver, Colorado, and watched wildfires burn across Interstate 70 last summer, discusses everything from how to protect your property and how to prevent flood damage to what kinds of insurance and assistance are available to citizens who lose their properties to fire.

Arrowood said the book is intended for those who live in the Wildland-Urban Interface, defined as the area between residential developments or suburbs and public lands, open lands, forests or ranch lands. "It's not for firefighters as such," Arrowood told ENS in an interview. "It can also be helpful for those who live in a forested environment."

This book is a first. Despite the media and government attention given to the subject, there have been no books written specifically to help people deal with the reality of wildfires.

"Not that we could find, and the publisher did a lot of looking," Arrowood said. "A lot of newspapers do articles that tell you what you should do. They give good information, but they forget to tell you what to take with you when you go out the door."

So what should you take with you if you have to leave your home because a fire is threatening?

"I would tell people in an emergency to take credit cards, checkbook and several forms of identification that prove who you are. With a passport and a credit card, you can do that. And you need to get your kids prepared. They may be at school, and the fire might be between you and them and you can't get to your children."

Arrowood said there are ways to help avert a wildfire from reaching your home or property.

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The remains of a structure after fire near Larimer, Colorado (Photo courtesy Larimer County)
"You need to find out who your fire authority is and what specifically the defensible space around your home is," said Arrowood. "What do you have to do to be as sure as possible that the firefighters will be comfortable fighting a fire at your house? In some cases the answer might be moot. They won't call you, but they will come out if you ask."

Arrowood explained that it is easy for people to think the wildfire danger has passed in places like Colorado, where this year the drought situation has been eased by a couple of late snowstorms and more normal spring rainfall. "All the trees killed by pine bark beetles are still dead. All the trees that died the last few years in the drought are still dead," she said. "I call them Roman candles waiting to be lit."

And, Arrowood adds, dead trees are not the only problem. "In California, for instance, there is rain in the spring, but by late summer the green grass has turned into dry, dead timber. They just leave it. Now you have grass coming up against fallen branches and dead trees. They call that the fuel ladder. They might be wet now, but when they dry, they're still going to burn."

With these risks in mind, Arrowood says it is important to create a defensible space around your home, which means leaving adequate room between the forest and other combustible material and your buildings.

"You have to break the fuel continuum," she said. "It doesn't mean you can't plant anything. But be careful what you plant. If you have the fuel ladder, it's like putting a ladder against the house and letting the thief in. Still, I see people putting stacks and stacks of firewood against the house."

Making your home defensible improves the chances that firefighters will be able to save it from incineration.

"There are many houses in the Wildland-Urban Interface where firefighters won't fight a fire, where it's not safe for them to come to the property or you don't have access," Arrowood said. "If they can't get to your house, what are you going to do?"

"Living With Wildfire" includes chapters about flooding, a natural consequence of fire that many people living in foothills and mountains never even consider.

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Fire on the Hanford nuclear reservation in central Washington state. June 2000. (Photo courtesy Hanford)
"The worst after effect when a fire goes through is that it crystallizes the ground, and water can't be absorbed," Arrowood said. "If it's a high intensity fire, it kills and sterilizes everything in its path. It's hard for plants to take root, and it takes time for stuff to grow. It's a hard packed, almost glassy surface, and water runs off downhill toward a stream. There's nothing to divert the water, and they get flooded out."

"If you're deemed to live in the floodplain," Arrowood says, "you're required to buy it as part of the mortgage agreement. Those aren't the people who live in the hills."

Subsequent editions of her book might include more information specific to each region, Arrowood says. "There are areas where droughts are most likely to happen or where problems change from year to year. Some states have a lot of information; some don't. Some states have laws mandating your defensible space; some just say it's a good idea."

"When I bought my house," she says, "I was told the trees had to be cleared to 30 to 35 feet from the house, but nobody ever enforced it. The reality is that you need to clear farther on the downhill side than the uphill side."

Arrowood hopes the book will help people understand how better to live with the reality of fire.

"For instance, when it says 'no open fires,' that means things like don't smoke cigarettes unless it's in a closed space like a car. I'm a volunteer patroller, and it's incredible the number of cigarette butts you find on the trails. Most fires are started by people, and most are started a few hundred feet from the road."

Arrowood offers one last important piece of advice for those in the line of an approaching wildfire, "Listen to fire authorities, especially if they come to your home. They're not going to come back again and remind you. If they tell you to leave, take your stuff and leave."

For more information about "Living With Wildfire," go to: http://wildfires.bradfordpublishing.com.