Nick Harrison, coordinator of Texas A&M Forest Service’s Firewise program, wants everyone to be fire wise.
“Firewise is a national program sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association,” Harrison said. “Communities follow a set of guidelines recognized at the national level.”
Becoming fire wise requires a plan. Harrison instructs people to assess their preparedness by starting at the home and working their way out. Look around your building for defensible space—the space between a structure and the wildland area that, under normal conditions, creates a sufficient buffer to slow or halt the spread of wildfire to that structure.
“Are there areas where leaves, needles or grasses accumulate around the house?” Harrison asks. “Wind eddies and tight corners can create leaf piles, and an ember can land in those leaves and set your house on fire.”
Harrison suggests first looking around the house five feet out and then moving out at least 30 feet. Look for limbs overhanging the house or chimney.
“We talk about fuels in trees such as junipers that have limbs all over the ground,” Harrison said. “Can we trim those lower limbs in case we have a ground fire that can ignite those limbs and carry the fire to the tree’s crown?”
According to Harrison, the fire is not the initial threat, the embers in front of it are.
“Most homes are not lost because of a major flaming front hitting the house,” said Harrison. “They are lost because we have thousands of embers that get produced from the fire.”
If you have a wood exterior, keep the embers back either by having a concrete area such as a patio, or landscaping such as crushed rock or gravel, at least 20 inches out from the house all the way around. Keep the area free of grass, weeds or leaves, and remove any dead or dying vegetation or other flammable materials that are on the patios, porches, up on the eaves or collected under windows.
Even metal gutters can pose an ignition threat if they’re full of leaves and catch an ember. Vinyl gutters can melt or fall off and expose the eaves. Resist the temptation to move piles of firewood up against the house for easy access; keep them at least 30 feet away from the house. If you have decks extending from your house, put screening up underneath them so you don’t get embers there. In the home, make sure the vents have a 1/8 inch metal screen—not plastic, which will melt, or fiberglass, which can gap out from its mooring.
The most vulnerable part of your house can be the roof, but Harrison said most ranch homes have either a metal roof or a composition Class A (fire rating) roof.
“You want to have a screen on top of your chimney, so when you burn you’re not pushing embers up above your house,” he said. “Close the damper in the event embers are coming in from the outside.”
Some homes have a vent that runs along the top of the roof. Make sure it’s not plastic. Windows should be double-paned to prevent radiant heat from passing through to the house and should not be encased in vinyl, which can fail under heat and possibly cause the window to fall out.
Moving away from the house, make sure wooden fences have a break in them such as a wrought iron gate. A continuous wooden fence can act like a wick drawing fire straight to the house.
If the fire is upon you, practice life safety.
“We encourage folks to get out,” Harrison said. “People don’t want to leave their homes, which I understand, but objects can be replaced. You can’t replace a life.”
If some want to stay to fight the fire, make sure those who can’t are evacuated. Prioritize in advance.
Harrison said. “Are there important papers you need to have with you, or do they need to be in town in the safety deposit box?” Harrison said. “If fire overruns your property, the last thing you want to be doing is loading up heirlooms.”
When it comes to livestock, cattle and horses are different. Unlock gates so cattle can escape, but horses have to have the barn door or corral gate closed behind them.
This was vividly brought out one day to Dr. Mike Martin, DVM, a professor with the Texas A&M Department of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Martin, who has a country practice and field service got a call early in the morning from a stable owner client. A passerby had spotted a fire in one of the barns.
“The person who had opened the stall doors remarked about how difficult it was to get the horses to leave their stalls, despite the smoke and flames down the hallway,” he recalled. The staff had to halter the horses and lead them out because while the horses would exit the open stall doors, they’d immediately go back inside.
Planning for emergencies is crucial. Dr. Wesley Bissett, DVM, director of the Veterinary Emergency Team at Texas A&M, said it’s a good idea to disk or clear fire lanes around pastures and buildings that are important to your operations, but you may still need to improvise when the fire hits. He recalled that during the Bastrop fires in 2011 a fire crossed a four-lane highway as if it were nothing.
“I am a big believer in emergency preparedness planning and, in the case of cattle ranches, continuity of operations planning,” Bissett said. “And all of that needs to be done in the calm of the moment. Don’t wait until the wildfire is half a mile away to figure out how you’re going to give the cattle safe passageway.”
This article was excerpted from The Cattleman magazine, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association
by Gary DiGiuseppe
Illustrations provided by Texas A&M Forest Service