The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is encouraging rural homeowners to become “Firewise” to reduce the risks of wildfires to their homes.
“Now is an excellent time to evaluate and take home wildfire prevention steps while homeowners are clearing woodlots, cutting firewood or removing downed or dying trees from around their homes,” said Linda Gormanson, DNR wildfire prevention supervisor.
As more homes are built in the woods and fields of Minnesota, existing firefighting resources are less able to protect everyone’s property while trying to control a wildfire.
The DNR’s Firewise program identifies four factors homeowners can control that affect whether a home will survive a wildfire: access, site, structure and burning practices.
Access affects how easily firefighters and emergency vehicles can find and access a home. Without a good access and escape routes, firefighters will not endanger themselves to save a home.
The address must be clearly visible from the road to ensure firefighters can find the home. Homes with driveways less than 150 feet long can be accessed from the street. They should be at least 12 feet wide and clear of branches 14 feet up. Longer driveways must accommodate fire-fighting vehicles. They must be 20 feet wide, have a firm, all-weather surface and a vehicle turnaround near the house. Bridges or culverts should support the weight of a fire truck.
Site (home defensible zone)
In rural areas when multiple homes are at risk, a home may need to stand without firefighter protection. How a home is situated on the lot will determine whether it can survive when firefighters are not there to defend it. The critical area, called the home defensible zone, is the 30 feet directly surrounding a home, including any outbuildings.
Inside the home defensible zone, anything flammable should be removed or modified. If the trees are predominantly conifers, a 10-foot minimum space should be maintained between tree crowns (branches of adjacent trees) and tree crown and home. This prevents fire from jumping tree-to-tree and tree-to-home.
The vertical arrangement of vegetation is also important. Is there continuous fuel (grass, leaves, branches), called ladder fuel, providing a ladder for fuel to climb from ground to tree crown? These fuels are eliminated by mowing tall grass, trimming shrubs and pruning the lower tree branches up 6 to 10 feet, or one-third of the tree height. Keeping the lawn green and mowed short will prevent it from carrying fire.
Flammables next to buildings include firewood piles and leaf and needle fall that accumulates around foundations and under decks. Firewood piles should be moved outside the home defensible zone by March. Use rock and stone landscaping materials next to buildings, and clean the leaves out of the rocks each spring.
Remove old cars, lumber piles and other debris from the defensible zone. Make sure fences have easily accessible gates and are free of debris and trees.
Reducing fuels in the wooded area 100 feet beyond the home will reduce the intensity of an approaching wildfire. Trees may need to be thinned to increase spacing, especially conifers at high densities. Pruning the remaining trees up 6 to 10 feet, or one-third of the tree height, and reducing underbrush will help reduce fuels and lessen wildfire intensity.
Home modifications that further reduce wildfire risk can be expensive. They include re-siding with brick, stone, stucco or steel, and replacing shake roofing with class “A” shingles or steel. Enclosing foundations, decks and overhangs with steel, masonry or less expensive flame-resistant sheeting will also reduce wildfire risk.
Other less expensive modifications include spark arrestors on chimneys, enclosing soffits with a solid barrier, and screening vents with a fine mesh to prevent access from flying embers.
The number one cause of wildfires in Minnesota is escaped debris from burning fires. Consider alternatives to burning leaves and debris like composting. Recreational fires should be started in a fire-safe pit or container and completely extinguished before left unattended. Before lighting any outdoor fire, check for local fire restrictions and permit requirements. Also be aware of weather conditions and forecast. High winds, high temperatures and low humidity are contributing factors to escaped fires.
The Firewise program is funded in part by the USDA Forest Service (www.firewise.org). The goal is to reduce losses from wildfire by assisting homeowners through their communities. Communities can qualify for funding assistance by identifying high fire risk areas, evaluating the hazards that cause the risk, and mitigating those hazards through planning, fuels reduction and education.