Class teaches ways to lessen wildfire risks

Fired up to protect homes

Posted: Monday, April 17, 2006

Wildfire season is fast approaching for the majority of the Kenai Peninsula. It has already arrived in the warmer southern areas, such as Homer, where last year the first wildfire broke out in late April.

April was the beginning of what ultimately became the third greatest wildfire season on record in Alaska, consuming more than 4.4 million acres, due in part to several large blazes on the peninsula, such as the Fox Creek Fire, Irish Channel Fire and King County Creek Fire — which combined charred more than 40,000 acres.

Looking to avoid another wildfire season to add to the record books, the Fire Corps — part of the Kenai Peninsula Citizens Corps — held a community training session Saturday at the Kenai River Center in Soldotna.

The purpose of the course was to train community members to be prepared, knowledgeable and responsive in a wildlife emergency.

“In Alaska — and in wildland-urban interface areas in particular — wildfire isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said instructor Doug Newbould, a fire management officer with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. “But, that doesn’t mean people are helpless.”

Newbould focused on fire problems relating to this “wildland-urban interface,” which is the point where the forest and wildlands meet human development.

“We have lots of people here and many of them choose to build their homes within or near wildland areas. This environment may be desirable for some, but it comes with consequences since these areas are often covered with flammable native vegetation,” Newbould said.

He explained that beetle-killed spruce makes up a majority of this flammable vegetation, but it is not the sole source of wildland fire fuel. Living spruce trees, especially black spruce, can also constitute a problem.

“This species is one of the most flammable, if not the most flammable, evergreen there is,” Newbould said.

Sharon Kilbourn-Roesch, a state Forestry fire prevention officer, said native grasses also pose potential problems.

“Native grasses are a flashy fuel that can spread fire rapidly at this time of year,” she said.

Since snow is still on the ground and the temperature is cool, people are lulled into believing a ground fire couldn’t happen. However, Kilbourn-Roesch said the reality is until greenup comes, this time of year has the highest potential for a ground fire because just an hour or two of sun in the afternoon can dry native grasses, making them highly ignitable.

Newbould also explained to the group of more than 20 people the elements of fire, the ways fire spreads and how topography and weather — including temperature, humidity and wind — affect wildfire.

“Winds of 20 to 40 miles per hour are not uncommon on the peninsula,” he said.

With wildland fire fuels and risks identified, the instructors explained what can be done to protect homes from wildfires.

One of the best ways to prepare for and prevent a wildland fire from consuming a home is to create a defensible space around the structure, Kilbourn-Roesch said.

She defined defensible space as “an area surrounding structures that allow firefighters and equipment the space to defend against approaching wildfire.”

This concept is a key component of Firewise — a community action program developed to help homeowners protect their property by making their home and yard less ignitable.

Kilbourn-Roesch said homeowners should create three zones of defensible space. In the first zone, within 30 feet of a home, all vegetation should be lush and green and there should be absolutely no ignitable materials.

The second zone should extend 30 to 100 feet beyond zone one. This area should be cleared of dead spruce and live trees should be trimmed to remove branches within eight feet of the ground to prevent ground fires from spreading up and consuming the trees.

The third zone should extended 100 feet beyond zone two and the thinning of spruce should continue in this area to ensure as little as possible continuity of vegetation or materials that could be ignited by an approaching fire.

“Every step you take takes you one step close to being safe,” Kilbourn-Roesch said.

The course concluded with a summary of ways to preplan for an evacuation that included knowing at least two evacuation routes, having important items and documents gathered, having transportation plans and equipment for pets and livestock in place, and — when possible — knowing how to prepare the home to reduce damage when a fire passes by.

For more information on wildfire preparedness and response, contact Kilbourn-Roesch at 260-4260, Newbould at 260-5994, or Glenda Landua or the Kenai Peninsula Citizen Corps at 262-2098.

Be Firewise

Wildfire experts recommend creating three zones of defensible space around a home to protect it from wildfires:

· Zone 1 — No ignitable materials, only lush green vegetation within 30 feet of the home.

· Zone 2 — Clear dead spruce, trim live trees from 30 to 100 feet from the home.

· Zone 3 — Thin trees 100 feet out from Zone 2.

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