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Home hardening 101

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It’s April and time to harden your home, and it soon will be May: time to Firewise Your Landscape. With a warmer, drier climate, wildfires have become more common, and more dangerous. Ashland Fire & Rescue and the Ashland Wildfire Safety Commission urge us to take personal responsibility now to reduce our community risk of a catastrophic wildfire.

“The Almeda fire created the impression that such fires are unstoppable, but if we all pull together as a community we can make our town dramatically safer against an Almeda Fire threat,” according to Ashland Firewise Coordinator Katie Gibble.

At a recent program on Wildfire and Climate Change hosted by Ashland Climate and Energy Programs, Gibble laid out the basic principles for reducing wildfire risk around your home.

First of all, wrap your head around the concept of your home as an “ignition zone” with three zones: the immediate (zero to five feet from the house), the intermediate (5 to 30 feet from the house), and the extended zone (30-100 feet from the house).

It’s best to start with the immediate zone and work outward, Gibble advises. One low cost strategy is to install one-eighth inch metal mesh screening on all attic vents, basements, and crawl spaces. “You should harden your home anywhere embers could get in,” Gibble explains.

If you have a deck or a porch, give it a good look. “Enclose these if possible,” says Gibble. “You don't want leaves or needle litter accumulating under there, where embers could get in and end up igniting your deck.”

Fences are also a big deal — especially the sections next to the house. “Make sure that fences attached to your home are composed of non-combustible material,” Gibble advises.

There’s lots of chatter in Ashland lately about fire-resistant sprays and intumescent paint for wood fences. Gibble is dubious.

“It’s a stopgap but it has a time limit. If you do use it, prioritize the first 5 feet where the fence attaches to your home. It’s better to install something that's non-combustible in the first place.”

It’s good to know what your roof is made of and how fire-resistant it is. Roofing materials are rated Class A, B, C, or unrated, with A the most fire-resistant. Class A roof coverings include clay tiles, asphalt composition shingles, and metal.

Other no-no’s in the immediate zone include flammable plants, bark mulch, dead leaves, firewood, lumber, and other flammable “kindling.” Fireadaptedashland.org provides a list of flammable plants.

In the intermediate zone, the goal is similar: reduce materials that can burn at high intensity.

“The fire front of the Almeda fire moved quickly,” says Gibble. “Some homes survived the initial front, but if there were flammable plants or bark mulch within 30 feet, the embers had the chance to punk around until they reached something flammable that eventually brought the fire to the home.”

Ashland prohibits bark mulch within the first five feet of new construction, but Gibble advises all residents to be thoughtful in how they use bark mulch.

“It’s better to use something non-combustible, but it can be used sparingly, particularly under fire-resistant plants to help them retain moisture. When embers land in dry bark mulch, they can ignite, and the mulch can go airborne and spread the fire further. The key with bark mulch is avoid having a continuous layer reaching toward the home or to be an abundant source of embers.”

In the extended zone (30-100 feet), the goal is stopping fire from spreading through the trees.

“If you look up into the canopy and there's no spacing in between flammable trees--think pines, cedars, doug fir--fire can spread from tree to tree,” Gibble explains. “If you can break it up, the fire is forced to drop to the ground. You also want to prevent fire moving from below up into the canopy. If you have young seedlings growing beneath a pine, you should eliminate those. If the large tree ignites, flames could reach your home.”

Also, keep your surface fuel to a minimum. Your rake is your friend! “If you have a lot of trees with a lot of branches and needles, rake it up and break it up so fire can't spread up to your home,” says Gibble.

Katie Gibble will provide another program on home wildfire risk reduction and evacuation 6 p.m. May 6. Show her you care by registering for the program at fireadaptedashland.org/wildfireprep.

Lorrie Kaplan is Chair of the Ashland Climate Action Project of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now.