Recently, devastating wildfires have frequently made the news all across the United States, causing billions of dollars in property damage, as well as vast ecological devastation. The sad truth is this trend is likely to worsen as the effects of drought and climate change compound to create ideal conditions for dangerous fires. The good news is that it is possible to take steps to prevent wildfire risks in your immediate vicinity.
Wildfire prevention and mitigation is one of the best ways Oregonians can protect our forests. In the following article, we’ll offer a few steps that you, as an Oregonian, can take to keep yourself, your loved ones and your property safe during wildfire season.
The first step in remaining safe from wildfires is to understand how they begin in the first place. When we refer to a “wildfire,” we’re referring to an uncontrolled fire in a forested area. They may begin naturally, due to a lightning strike or other phenomenon, or they may have a manmade source, such as a carelessly discarded cigarette or unattended campfire.
Whatever their original cause, wildfires require a large amount of fuel to burn and grow. In a forest, this fuel source is usually a layer of dried vegetation, which may accumulate over the course of months or years, especially during drought conditions.
A fire knows no boundaries, and a wildfire that began its life burning through dead plant matter can easily spread to human habitations, especially unprotected houses. Frequently, man-made structures also offer a ready source of easily combustible fuel that allows fires to propagate much farther than they would otherwise.
It takes more than just a fuel source to encourage the spread of a dangerous wildfire. Environmental conditions can contribute to fires becoming large and as destructive as they have been in recent summers. Wind is a key contributor: wildfires can spread as fast as the wind is blowing, meaning that they move at an average of around 14 miles per hour but are capable of going much faster. Wind also carries embers from the fire, creating spot fires miles away from the larger fire.
The gradient of the terrain is another major factor in the spread of wildfires. Fires are capable of spreading both uphill and downhill when conditions are right but tend to move uphill more quickly. This is because winds tend to blow uphill as the heat rises. This means that superheated smoke carried by the wind can bring the fire with it to higher and higher points within the forest.
One of the best ways to protect your home from wildfires is to determine what the risks are and mitigate them as much as possible. You can start by learning what the fire risk is in your area. Is your property in a wildland urban interface area, where the risk of fire is greater? Oregon is in the process of developing a wildlife hazard map to help identify areas in the state that are most at risk of fire danger.
You should also evaluate the primary risk factors for fire in your house and its immediate vicinity. Look for flammable materials that are touching the building or near it. For example, many homeowners often ignore dead or fallen trees near their homes, but these are a primary source of fuel for dangerous wildfires. Fallen leaves, dried shrubs and other vegetation can pose serious threats to the home if they are found nearby.
The next step you can take to keep your home safe from the spread of wildfires is to clear any possible fuel sources from the immediate vicinity of the house. This means clearing away any brush that has accumulated, removing dead trees and pruning dead branches on living trees, especially those that are overhanging the building.
Clearing away flammable materials closest to your home is a good place to start, but you should also remove fuel sources that are not in the immediate vicinity but are still on the property. This means the yard and any other extensions of your property.
How you handle potential fire risks can also make a difference in protecting your home. If you’re planning to do any burning on your property, smoke at home, or run machinery that might create a spark, be sure to follow safety precautions.
While wildfires can start without warning and spread quickly, they still require a fuel source to reach an inhabited area. This is why it’s beneficial to create what’s known as a defensible space around your property.
The defensible space essentially serves two purposes: first, it offers a sort of buffer, or an area across which fire cannot easily spread. Second, it provides a safe space for firefighters to operate in the event that a wildfire does occur.
To begin rendering an area defensible, first, trim all of the trees so that there is at least a 10-foot gap between the building and any branches. As mentioned above, this area should be entirely clear of debris, combustible items, and other hazards.
You should also install protective barriers over openings such as attic vents to prevent any flammable materials from entering your home. These can be made from a simple, low-tech wire mesh.
It’s also important to have a plan in place for what you and your family will do if a wildfire does occur. Even if you know how to prevent wildfire risks around your home, the fact of the matter is that it may still come uncomfortably close to your home, regardless of the steps you have taken to avoid it.
First, be sure to follow your emergency services providers on social media or sign up for any alert systems. This will help you know if a fire in your area is posing an imminent threat. Follow their advice for determining whether to leave your home or shelter in place.
Part of your wildfire preparedness plan should be to have emergency supplies readily available. These include fire extinguishers, first aid kits, flashlights and emergency food, medicine and water supplies. These can be used within the home or brought with you in the case of an evacuation order. And don’t forget about your pets! Stock up on their food, treats and toys.
You should also have a plan in place to communicate with your family if you become separated during an emergency. Having designated escape routes everyone is familiar with and a safe meeting place you have discussed in advance can help to ensure everyone is able to remain safely in touch after an evacuation has taken place.
Resources like Oregon Forests Forever help to spread awareness of wildfire prevention practices. Learn more about Oregon wildfires and smoke on the Wildfire Resource page. You can even sign up for wildfire alerts so you can stay up to date on the current wildfire situation in your area.
Protecting human lives, property, and timber-producing forest
Oregon’s forests produce the highest quality water in the state
Supporting communities and the environment
Working forests are key in the fight against climate change
Offering a career path and future for everyone
Forest practice laws safeguard water, fish and wildlife
Different forest types create and maintain wildlife habitats
Oregon has the same amount of forestland now as 100 years ago