With this summer's fire season coming to a close, you might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. But this isn't time to sit back and relax — it's time to prepare for the next fire season.
In the urban-rural interface areas of Jackson and Josephine counties, preparing for fire danger is constant. Now is the time to analyze your yard and make sure you have defensible space around your home.
"It's important to get some advice from a professional on what your fire risk is, so you don't wind up doing things you don't have to do," says Brian Ballou, specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry in Medford.
Most local fire departments, the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon State University Research & Extension Center on Hanley Road have foresters or firefighters available to inspect your property and give you free professional advice on how best to create defensible space around your home. When forestry staff is booked, they will provide you with a list of accredited contract fire risk assessors, some of whom also do the required work.
The OSU Extension and the Master Gardener Plant Clinic have handouts on fire prevention and creating defensible space, and can provide you with a list of fire-resistant plants to incorporate into your landscaping.
Oregon Department of Forestry, 5286 Table Rock Rd., Medford, 664-3328
Oregon State University Research & Extension Center, 569 Hanley Rd., Central Point, 776 -7371
Jackson County Master Gardener Plant Clinic, 569 Hanley Rd., Central Point, 776-7371
The concept of defensible space means doing everything you can to make sure your yard and land does not provide fuel for a wildfire. Thirty feet around your house is minimum, one hundred feet is better.
"There is this common assumption" says Brian Ballou, wildland/urban interface specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry in Medford, "that they have to remove a lot of trees. Actually a lot of trees, especially older trees, are beneficial. Tree bark is really resistant to burning. The focus should be on the ground level and the ladder fuels which can feed a fire."
To start a fire, you need kindling. The same is true with a wildfire, and it is the kindling you have to eliminate. You want to keep the ground beneath your trees free of tall grasses and brush that will allow the fire to climb into the tree limbs.
The current emphasis on low-maintenance landscaping plants that need minimum water is actually not good for fire resistance. Plants that need little water tend to be dryer plants that burn easily.
"Juniper and low growing cypress, which are used often for foundation planting, are particularly vulnerable to fire," Ballou says. "Their needles are highly resinous. If they are older plants with dead and dry areas inside them, they can flash into a very intense fire."
Native plants like ceanothus, madrone and manzanita are drought-tolerant, but burn intensely, says Gary Shade of Southern Oregon Fuels Reduction Assessment in Jacksonville. "Plants that need a lot of watering have a high water content and can actually deter a fire," he says. "It's a trade-off."
"Make sure you have fire truck access on your property," he says. "Trees and shrubs along your driveway need to be trimmed back and up, so you have a drive 12 feet wide with a 12-foot high clearance."
Now is also the time to prune out dead branches, particularly in hardwood trees, and to trim the lower branches 6 to 10 feet up, depending on what is under the tree.
One mistake many people make, is locating their wood pile up against the house. A separate woodshed that can be closed up in summer is much safer. Another problem is storing flammable items under decks and porches. These areas should be clear of anything that can burn, including plastic lawn furniture, and the undersides sealed off with wire mesh or siding which will discourage the spread of fire.
Putting mesh screen behind attic vents also makes it difficult for flying embers to enter and start a fire. Keeping any bushes planted under windows trimmed low to prevent the windows from "blowing in" from the heat and spreading fire into your house.
"You want to keep the fire on the ground," Shade emphasizes, "so maintenance and cleanliness of your yard is essential."
Autumn's cooler weather makes it the perfect time to get a jump start on these jobs. When our next fire season is declared, you'll already be breathing easier.