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Wild fires demonstrate need for defensible space



A firefighter watches fire behavior preparing for action as it approaches the house. The Picnic Rock fire gobbled 8900 acres, burned two structures and forced the evacuation of 140 residents. (Photo courtesy of BLM Colorado)

As firefighters wage fierce battles against wild fires that ravaged California, chasing thousands out of their homes, Bureau of Land Management firefighters reiterate the importance of creating defensible space around the home. Defensible space produces a survival element against wild fires for firefighter to set a sprinkler system, or position resources to divert the fire from a home.

“It’s exasperating when a wildfire is closing in on a dwelling and there is little we can do to save the home,” said Rich Zimmerlee, acting Fire Management Officer (FMO) at the Battle Mountain District Office. “The home owners who have not done anything to prepare for wildland fires are most likely the ones that will lose their homes.”

“Firefighters want to protect the home, but we have to balance the safety of the crew with saving the home,” said Zimmerlee.

Nevadans are encouraged to take advantage of the relatively slow fire season to assure their homes are protected.

“The fall months create a unique opportunity for managing landscape and creating de

fensible space and planting new less flammable plants,” said Zimmerlee.

An effective defensible space

If cheatgrass surrounds the property, an option is to use herbicides to control next year’s crop. Cheatgrass seeds germinate in late fall. By properly applying an herbicide prior to seed germination, the following year’s cheatgrass population can be greatly reduced. Clear at least 30 feet around the property on flat land and100 feet if the property is on a moderate (21% to 40% slope) to a very steep slope (more than 40%).

Conservation grasses provide an effective suppression to cheatgrass and other weeds. They control soil erosion, and prevent the bare-ground look often associated with defensible space. Crested wheatgrass is a conservation grass often used in Nevada for this purpose. The goal is to plant the seed before winter and to let the plants germinate next spring when there’s likely to be moist soil and warmer temperatures. Providing some light irrigation during the first growing season will improve the odds of having a successful growth.

If big sagegrass, bitterbrush, pinion and juniper trees surround the property, it is best to clear a 100 feet perimeter on flat land and 200 feet on a moderate to very steep slope. Land around the house need not be entirely barren. Good replacement plants include low-growing deciduous shrubs, perennial flowers and deciduous trees.

If the property is surrounded by forests and substantial grasses, create a defensible space of 30 feet on flat ground, 100 feet on moderate steepness, and 200 feet on a very steep slope.

Other steps to take include:

  • Using fire-resistant building materials
  • Regularly cleaning roof surfaces and gutters
  • Maintaining screen constructed of non-flammable material over the flue opening of every chimney or stovepipe.
  • Storing gasoline in an approved safety can away from occupied buildings. Propane tanks should be far enough away from buildings for valves to be shut off in case of fire.
  • Keeping firewood, picnic tables, boats, etc. away from structures.
  • Clearing flammables away from under decks.

The cause of wild fires

More than half of the wild fires that erupted in northern Nevada this year were caused by humans, reports the central Nevada Interagency Dispatch Center. Human caused fires are most often the result of carelessness and lack of knowledge. A tossed cigarette, an automobile exhaust system and a spark from a power tool can ignite dry grass.

Nevada’s vast rangeland and dry conditions provide an environment for wildland fires. Some fires creep slowly, while others race ferociously across the land. According to Zimmerlee several types of vegetation common to northern Nevada burn differently under certain conditions. It’s good to understand how each burns.

Dry sagebrush, bitterbrush and cheatgrass provide natural fuel for fires. In moderate wind speed of 20 miles per hour, a cheatgrass fire can tower up to 8 feet, and travelling at 4 ½ miles per hour will consume 3,000 acres after one hour. Large sagebrush and bitterbrush fire can shoot up to 55 feet, travelling 8 ½ miles per hour gobbles up 5,900 acres after one hour.

For additional information on creating a defensible space, contact the BLM Battle Mountain District Fire Management Officer, 775-635-4000. For specific plant suggestions, look up A Compilation of Good Plant Choices for Nevada’s High Fire Hazard Areas by Ed Smith and Sonya Sistare. The booklet can be found on the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension website: http://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/nr/2005/SP0516.pdf

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.