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If You Live in the Wildland Fire Zone, Repeat After Me: Defensible Space is Essential

The 2009 Station Fire burns behind a home in La Crescenta, CA.
The 2009 Station Fire burns behind a home in La Crescenta, CA. | Photo: Anthony Citrano/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you have a house in the Wrightwood area, tucked into the stiff folds of the San Gabriel Mountains' northern slope. If you call Arrowhead or Big Bear home, sylvan communities that the San Bernardino National Forest envelops. If you have set down roots along the ridgelines of the Santa Monica Mountains, or commute from the narrow canyons slotted into the foothills that range above the valleys below, then do yourself a favor. Step outside and walk a series of ever-expanding concentric circles around your abode, ending at the perimeter of your property. Those steps could save your life and those you love.

As you open your door, pause at the transom. Listen for the echoes of heavy boots thudding along dusty ground, panting men in full sprint downhill through thorn-sharp brush, racing away from a wind-driven fire that would soon engulf them. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, tasked with battling the Yarnell Hill blaze in Arizona as it threatened nearby subdivisions in the wildland-urban interface, could not outrun the flames. Their horrific deaths should haunt us, should propel us to protect our homes and those who may be called to defend them for us.

Begin with an understanding of the larger context of the land we inhabit. Millions of Californians live in wildland fire zones, spaces that burn, that are supposed to burn. We know this because this is the terrain where fires, however ignited and at whatever intensity, have erupted over time. But also because the native flora is fire-adapted -- chaparral, sage scrub, oak woodlands and savannahs, forest montane are among the ecosystems into which we have settled and which by their very nature can go up in smoke.

Ask then a series of questions as you stroll your land: Does the structure offer fuel to flames via the type of shingles hammered on to the roof, wooden stairs that lead to exterior porches and decks, beams jutting out beneath eaves, or in the form of its attic vents?

These are not random queries. In a 2007 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report that assessed the fire-sparking nature of housing in the wildand-urban interface, its authors concluded that since "houses are much more flammable per square yard than forests, homes that erupt in flames can propel forest fires to a critical intensity threshold much more quickly."

This lesson too easily can be applied to the 2007 megafires that ripped through neighborhoods from San Diego north through the San Gabriels and to the Tea Fire, which in November 2008 consumed more than 200 high-end homes in Montecito.

"The message here is that fireproofing homes not only preserves structures, but limits the size of forest fires," the NAS report asserted, protecting the people who live in these homes and "their neighbors and ultimately the forests."

Cleaning up the "home ignition zone," a term employed in a just-released U.S. Forest Service analysis about the role burning houses play in spreading wildfires, must come coupled with a resolute fireproofing of the surrounding landscape.

How many trees and plants crowd up against your home? How much open space extends from your foundation to the property line, to wherever the Manzanita, Chaparral or cactus, oaks or pine start to thicken? Statewide building codes that California adopted in 2007 require a cleared swath running out at least 100 feet. CAL FIRE calls this "fuels modification," the purpose of which is "to create a defensible space for firefighters and to protect...homes from wildfires."

Had such space been cleared around homes in the fire-ravaged Yarnell Hill subdivisions, the Granite Mountain Hotshots might not have been placed in such immediate danger (and a recent investigation directly blames the Arizona Division of Forestry for sending these men, already exhausted from their exertions battling other fires across the west, into this fatal fight).

Yet too few of the homes the crew was sent to protect had been fireproofed or had the requisite defensible space. In a post-fire accounting, the Pacific Biodiversity Institute found that "89 percent of the homes and other structures appeared to be in direct contact with trees or shrubs," and 30 percent of these burned. Of the small number of those dwellings that had been made defensible, only five percent were consumed.

The conclusion was easy to draw: "The contrast between these two structure survival rates is substantial and illustrates that simple and inexpensive measures, like keeping flammable vegetation away from homes, can have a real impact on the ability of a home to survive a wildfire."

Because no one wants another Yarnell Hill disaster on their conscience, now is the time to evaluate our place in this inflammable place, to admit our inescapable responsibility for those firefighters and other first-responders who someday might hustle uphill to defend our bodies and homes. The first step in this process is to make a close inspection of our home grounds and neighborhoods, a simple life-saving act that could have profound ramifications for a safer new year.

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