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Defensible space best way to protect a rural or wildland interface home from wildfire

From the Series: Wildfire County - Planning for the next big blaze series
  • Updated
  • 4 min to read

Firefighters and fire scientists say the most important thing you can do to protect a home in wildfire country is to create defensible space around it, then fire-harden the structure with a few simple improvements.

Santa Barbara County Fire Department Fire Marshal Rob Hazard said in addition to keeping an advancing wall of flames away from a structure, creating defensible space can give firefighters an open area where they can mount a home defense.

But it also works in reverse, too.

“[Defensible space] not only protects firefighters and the houses from wildfire, but it can also keep a structure fire from becoming a wildfire,” he said.

That’s what happened July 6, 2018, when flames from a burning home moved into surrounding vegetation and adjacent homes, touching off the Holiday fire, which burned only 113 acres but destroyed 10 homes, damaged three and destroyed 14 outbuildings.

Hazard noted creating defensible space isn’t just smart, it’s also state and county law. Every spring, County Fire personnel begin inspecting homes to make sure the owners have complied with requirements. Those who haven’t can be cited.

To help homeowners in wildland areas, County Fire and fire ecologists offer the following guidelines for creating defensible space, which should consist of two zones — the first extending 30 feet out from structures, the second reaching 70 feet beyond that.

Zone 1

• Remove all dead plants, grass, weeds.

• Remove or prune back flammable plants and shrubs near windows; remove flammable vegetation and items around and under decks.

• Prune away tree limbs below eight feet from the ground; trim back branches to keep them 10 feet from the branches of other trees and your chimney; remove branches that hang over the roof.

• Keep rain gutters cleared of dead leaves and rake up dead leaves in the yard.

• Separate items that can catch fire — wooden and wicker patio furniture, wooden swings and play sets — from each other and from trees and shrubs.

• Move firewood and construction wood piles to Zone 2.

• Consider landscaping a yard using rocks, gravel and decomposed granite along with cactus and succulents that hold a lot of water and don’t burn easily.

Zone 2

• Mow annual grasses down to no more than 4 inches tall.

• Remove dead leaves, pine needles, bark, pine cones and small branches that have fallen to the ground.

• Create vertical spaces between low grass and shrubs and higher tree limbs.

• Create horizontal spaces between shrubs and trees.

Other retrofit measures can help fire-harden a home, including replacing wooden shakes and asphalt shingles with Spanish tiles or, better yet, concrete panels that look like shingles and Spanish tiles.

Make sure real Spanish tile roofs are completely sealed along the edges and along roof ridges, and block open tiles along the eaves to prevent embers from blowing into them.

Speaking of embers, screens are available for roof vents that will prevent embers from flowing into attics.

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Open eaves should be boxed in to prevent embers from being lodged up in the corners and crevices.

Single-pane windows should be replaced with double-pane windows, but make sure the frames are made of materials that won’t easily melt.

Defensible space example

Although this house is surrounded by green trees, grass and shrubs, the area outside that had been turned into a defensible space by mowing down grasses and removing shrubs and burnable debris, leaving it an island of safety amid a sea of flames.

Double-pane windows will not only keep a house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, but they’ll also insulate the cooler inside air from the blast-furnace heat of a wildfire, making it harder for them to blow out due to temperature and pressure differentials.

Powders are available from a number of manufacturers that can be mixed with water to become a gel that is then sprayed on the exterior of a home to wrap it in a layer of water that will insulate it from the heat of a wildfire.

However, be aware that some of those gels can be extremely difficult to remove once the danger has passed.

In rugged and isolated rural areas where evacuation could be a problem, consider building a fire shelter below ground, with an insulated door and stocked with water.

Similar to a Midwest tornado cellar, fire shelters offer a short-term refuge if evacuation is impossible as well as a place to stash important documents, family photographs and other keepsakes until a wildfire passes.

Note that shelters are subject to county regulations and permits and state code requirements, and although prefabricated versions are available, building such a shelter isn’t cheap.

OPINION Today’s editorial is all about sharing the stories of your friends and neighbors, and their thoughts and fears about wildfires, all of which collectively paint a crucially important picture.

Two methods of preventing and controlling wildfires are so mired in controversy that getting their use approved is difficult and if approved, opposition sometimes brings them to a halt.  Ironically, both sides cite the Thomas fire as evidence to bolster their positions.

The best way to prepare for wildfires is to prevent them from igniting in the first place. But that may be far easier said than done, because the primary cause of wildfires is people.

Fire officials attribute Santa Barbara County’s high risk, in part, to its location in the wildfire “Goldilocks zone." The county sits far enough north to get good winter rainfall, but it’s far enough south to feel the Southern California summer heat that cooks fuels tinder-dry.

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County Reporter/Associate Editor

Lee Central Coast Newspapers associate editor Mike Hodgson covers Santa Barbara County government and events and issues in Santa Ynez Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MHodgsonSYVNews.

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