Glen Holt, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service eastern Alaska forester, was formerly a fire prevention officer with the State of Alaska Division of Forestry and worked as a wildland firefighter for 29 years. Contact him at 907-474-5271 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alaska wildfires burned more than 5 million acres last year. Warm, dry weather, along with human carelessness and lightning, contributed to wildfires that spread throughout the landscape. Carelessness with burn piles, burn barrels or power tools that create sparks during hot, dry conditions cause wildfires that can quickly burn out of control. Often they can burn beyond the ability of local resources to contain and suppress them. It is important that each of us creates and maintains wildfire defensible space and thinks in terms of survivable space.
Each of us is liable for the fires we start. Obtaining a burn permit from the state Division of Forestry and following those guidelines is a first step. In addition, be aware of the local fire danger.
No one who has ever gone through the ravages of wildfire has been totally prepared for the losses suffered. Fire insurance is important. Evaluate each year whether your policy covers you enough to adequately reflect the losses you’d incur if fire burned your home or property. Your policy may reflect a time when your property was not worth as much or you had fewer possessions. Make sure your policy covers the present-day cost of rebuilding and property replacement for the possessions you now own.
Creating and maintaining wildfire defensible space helps firefighters protect your property. However, because of the size of our wildfires, begin to also think in terms of survivable space. Ask yourself, if a wildfire becomes so large firefighters can’t get to me, will I survive? Often during hot, dry and windy weather a wildfire can quickly become so large that it can’t be contained or controlled everywhere. We’ve all seen this on the national news and know it has happened in our Alaska landscape. After creating “defensible space” and working to maintain it each year, assess your property for its ability to resist wildfire when no one has yet arrived to suppress it.
Assess your property, home, buildings, woodpiles, vehicles and stuff for their ability to resist burning embers or direct impingement by flames and that could lead to your home and possessions. Is your woodpile so close it will catch your home on fire? Is your home and porch skirted so embers or fire can’t get under it? Is your lumber, fuel tanks, gas cans, ATV or snowmobile, extra vehicles, patches of dry grass or other flammables, including the “stuff” we all have in our yards, too close to home and structures? And if they catch fire will they burn up those valuables? Do you have tools to suppress wildfire if it comes?
In a wildfire scenario, wind-borne burning embers are the leading cause of wildfire spread. Determine if your possessions can survive a virtual cloud of hot embers falling on them as a wind-driven wildfire approaches. A large wildfire may outstrip the ability of local suppression resources to effectively protect every home immediately.
Flammable embers carried during windy conditions can travel up to a half-mile or more in front of the blaze, causing the wildfire to spread rapidly. When evaluating your property this spring, determine whether it could survive the onslaught of burning embers if an out-of-control wildfire moves through your area.
Contact your local state Division of Forestry office or fire department before the wildfire season. Ask for a wildfire or Firewise evaluation. Remember to maintain defensible space and find out what else you can do to inhibit wildfire from destroying your property if it becomes so large that effective house-to-house suppression becomes impossible. Be safe with fire in the outdoors.
For more information on how you can create and maintain defensible space for yourself and neighborhood, see the Division of Forestry information at http://forestry.alaska.gov/fire/firewise.