Crews volunteer to scout N. Utah mountainside homes for wildfire risks

Jul 16 2013 - 11:44pm

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Ryan Barker (left) and Jeremiah Jones discuss fire protection efforts with Jan Egli at her home in North Ogden on Monday. Firefighters from the North View Fire District are going door to door along the East Bench to talk with homeowners about reducing their wildfire risk. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Jan Egli shows the property behind her North Ogden home to firefighters TJ Moser, Jeremiah Jones and Ryan Barker on Monday, July 15, 2013. Firefighters from the North View Fire District are going house to house along the East Bench to talk with homeowners about preparing for wildfires. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Jeremiah Jones (left) discusses fire protection efforts with Wayne Stevenson at Stevenson's home in North Ogden while TJ Moser (right) calculates the fire risk on Monday, July 15, 2013. Firefighters from the North View Fire District are going house to house along the east bench to talk with homeowners about preparing for wildfires. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Ryan Barker (left) and Jeremiah Jones discuss fire protection efforts with Jan Egli at her home in North Ogden on Monday. Firefighters from the North View Fire District are going door to door along the East Bench to talk with homeowners about reducing their wildfire risk. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Jan Egli shows the property behind her North Ogden home to firefighters TJ Moser, Jeremiah Jones and Ryan Barker on Monday, July 15, 2013. Firefighters from the North View Fire District are going house to house along the East Bench to talk with homeowners about preparing for wildfires. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Jeremiah Jones (left) discusses fire protection efforts with Wayne Stevenson at Stevenson's home in North Ogden while TJ Moser (right) calculates the fire risk on Monday, July 15, 2013. Firefighters from the North View Fire District are going house to house along the east bench to talk with homeowners about preparing for wildfires. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

The sun hung low in the sky, hot enough still to draw beads of sweat to the men's faces. A gentle breeze sent ripples through the long grass, rooted fast to the bone-dry earth of Weber County's East Bench -- ideal conditions for a wildfire. But there was no fire burning Monday as the three North View firefighters climbed into a fire engine's cab.

The men -- equipped with clipboards and pamphlets in lieu of their regular hoses and shovels -- were taking a less-thought-of approach to combating wildfires during the state's high-risk fire season.

They were fighting fire with education.

The Brush Patrol was started last year as a response to the increasing propensity and intensity of wildland fires, said North View Fire Marshal Jeremiah Jones.

The program is directed toward educating residents who live in the county's rural urban fringe of wildfire hazards. The program's goal is prevention and aversion.

Firefighters volunteer off-duty hours to take Brush Patrol shifts throughout the peak fire season. During each shift, time is spent going door to door, conducting home assessments and educating homeowners about things they should do to minimize susceptibility of their home to fire. The volunteers also patrol high-risk wildland areas.

"There is a lot of stuff that you can't change," firefighter TJ Moser said to homeowner Jan Egli regarding being prepared for a potential wildfire, "but there is a lot of stuff you can. That's what we're here to try and help with."

Drawing material from the national program "Firewise," Jones and his partners rank each home's risk -- from mild to severe -- of being overtaken by wildfire.

The things Jones said are most important to consider in preparing for a potential fire are: access to and from the home; construction of the home and its surroundings; the creation of a "defensible space" around the home; and conducting annual fire prevention maintenance.

Access

A clearly marked, easy-to-follow road leading to their home is one of the most important things homeowners must provide, Moser said.

"It is important to have a way in and a way out," he said to Egli, "mainly for our benefit, in case we need to get in here."

If roads, turnaround points, gate codes and signage are provided for emergency crews, Moser said, they can more easily place equipment where it is needed to most effectively combat the fire and protect homes.

Construction

The construction of a home can play a crucial role in determining whether it will withstand a nearby fire, Jones said.

Steps can be taken, he said, during the initial construction of a home, as well as through upgrades later in the home's life, that can make it more resistant to fire.

Jones said materials used in home construction should be considered for flammability, as should materials used in fencing and other landscaping.

To reduce a home's susceptibility to embers or floating debris from a fire, gutters should be cleaned regularly, and wire screens should be placed over attic vents, chimneys and windows.

"A lot of risk of fire comes not from the direct flame but from the embers," Jones said.

"They have been known to travel miles, where they can ... smolder for hours or even days before they combust."

Embers from a wildfire typically pose a greater threat to homes for a longer period of time than exposure to direct flame. The majority of homes that burn in a wildfire fall victim to this method of ignition, he said.

A defensible space

The creation of a defensible space around a home, or a buffer zone between the house and where brush begins on the mountainside, is another line of defense Jones said can protect a home.

By dividing a property into three zones -- near area, mid area and far area -- each with a different fire-resistant purpose, an approaching fire can, in many cases, be averted elsewhere.

By using low-growing, fire-resistant vegetation, such as grass, in the area nearest a home -- 3 to 5 feet from the structure -- a zone is created that is void of viable fuel for a fire to gain ground on the home.

In the mid area, Jones said, vegetation should be arranged to slow and reduce the intensity of an approaching fire. Dead leaves, branches and logs should also be removed.

Jones said a variety of plants can be used in landscaping that can help slow the spread of fire.

"There are a lot of plants indigenous to Utah that are not only beautiful but also require less water to care for and are more resistant to fire," he said, citing the Firewise booklet.

Proper planning in yard layout and vegetation makeup, as well as keeping a yard free from debris and low-hanging branches, can give emergency responders the option of "pushing the fire" beyond a home, Moser said, a method in which the fire is allowed to quickly pass through an area, burning fast-burning fuels without leaving time for larger fuels to ignite.

"That's the easiest way to protect your home," he said. "Just push it (the fire) past the home and let it keep moving to a point where we can put it out."

Jones also recommended identifying local water sources -- ponds, swimming pools, fire hydrants -- that emergency responders can be directed to in case they need additional water to fight a fire.

Maintenance

To ensure a home is safe from fire, Jones said, annual maintenance must be conducted to keep fire hazards at a minimum.

Homeowner Wayne Stevenson said he appreciates the efforts made by fire crews to keep his property safe.

"I think that's great," he said of the Brush Patrol. "You don't always know exactly what you need to do."

Jones said the 52 homes assessed last year by the Brush Patrol program are a testament to its success.

"We've had a really good response from the public. It just lets homeowners know that we care and that we are out here."

Jones said besides providing home assessments, the Brush Patrol allows firefighters a chance to become familiar with potential fire areas, check that hydrants are accessible and watch for fireworks use in restricted areas.

For questions about how a home may be made more safe from wildfire, call the North District Fire Station at 801-782-8159.

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