Fire is as natural a part of Pacific Northwest forests as the rain and sun.
And while the type and frequencies of wildfire differs east and west of the Cascades, landowners everywhere can prepare their homes and forests for wildfire if it arrives.
Looking thoughtfully at the land you steward is a critical step to reducing wildfire risk and improving your forest’s to resilience. Below we’ve listed questions you should be asking of yourself, your land manager, and your neighbors as you prepare your forest for wildfire.
Preparing your home and property for wildfire:
- Have you created a plan for defensible space around your house? There should be at least 30 feet of ignition-resistant landscaping to provide a fire break around your home. Read more about how to design a firewise yard.
- Are tall grasses and brush around your house being weed-whacked, and leafy debris being removed? Defensible space requires constant vigilance, especially during the fire season. Dry leaf litter, pine needles, and dry grasses are fire’s best friend—so keeping those fuels trimmed and swept away from your house is an essential part of maintaining defensible space. Mow your lawn and dispose promptly of cuttings and debris. Keep your gutters, eaves, and roof clear of leafy debris.
- Does your irrigation system work? If a fire should start nearby (and you have time to prepare for it) wetting the ground around your home will help prevent its spread. Make sure your irrigation system is functioning, and that you can reach every part of your home with a hose or sprinkler.
- Are all vents to your house properly screened to prevent embers from entering?
- Where is your firewood being stored? Store firewood and other flammable objects (lawn mowers, oil or gas cans, propane tanks) at least 50 feet away from your home. Clear the areas around those objects of dry bush and leafy or woody debris.
- Does your property have ingress and egress and adequate turnaround space for firefighters? Make sure the roads to and on your property are in good condition, and that a fire truck would have adequate room to navigate them. Wide turnaround space free of trees and other obstacles will make the firefighter’s work a little easier.
- Is your house address clearly marked? Firefighters need to be able to find your property in order to protect it. Get a 911 address sign to help first responders navigate.
- Do you have an emergency kit for everyone in your household? Put together an emergency kit that includes first aid supplies, snacks, water & water bottles, a portable weather radio, basic tools, a flashlight, work gloves, fresh batteries for each piece of equipment, clothing, extra phone chargers, blankets, baby items, prescription medications, extra car and house keys, extra eyeglasses, credit cards and cash, and important documents, including insurance policies.
Minimizing the risk of starting a fire while working in your forest:
- Are you watching where you park your car? The undersides of cars, particularly catalytic converters, can get very, very hot. The exhaust pipe is another problem area. Whenever possible, not park your car over dry grass, brush, or leaf litter. Stick to gravel, dirt, or rocks.
- Does your car have low parts that could spark? Low-hanging mufflers or chains that drag or bump the ground are liable to spark. If you’re towing a vehicle behind your car, make sure any tow-chains are fastened tightly enough so that they don’t drag.
- How are your tires looking? Check and regularly maintain your tires. Once a flat tire shreds, the bare wheel can shower sparks on roadside vegetation.
- Do you have a wildfire kit in your vehicle when doing work in the woods? This might include a shovel, work gloves, protective goggles, and a fire extinguisher.
If you’ve never done any thinning or fuel-reductions work on your forest – look around and ask:
- Are there a lot of fuels present? Dry down wood, branches low to the ground, tall grasses – these ladder fuels are vegetation (dead or alive) that connect the forest understory with the tree canopy, thus creating a route for surface fires to climb from the forest floor to the canopy.
- Are stands in my forest overcrowded, dark, and dense? If you’re not sure, it’s probably time to find out. You can use NNRG’s woody biomass calculator to do an at-home assessment of the density of your forest.
- How can I balance the objectives of fuel reduction and wildlife habitat improvement? We actually have an answer for this one already! Try SLLOPPS (Snags, Logs, Legacy, Openings, Patches, Piles and Shrubs). Ken Bevis of Washington DNR describes in this post how particular treatments can create healthier habitat and more fire-resilient forests. Here’s the six-minute video version of the same concept.
If you’ve done fuel reduction or thinning work in your forest in the past:
- How have stands in your forest changed since the last thinning activity? If you’ve already done some fuel-reduction work, in your overcrowded forest, we commend you! But don’t rest on your laurels—keep pace with your forest as it continues to grow! If your forest is still considered overstocked, it might be time to do another thinning.
- Did my last management practice leave a lot of slash piled on the ground? Slash is the woody debris left behind after a thinning, pruning, or limbing or other harvest practice. It’s also the perfect fuel source for a small fire trying to get bigger. Make sure to always clear slash 25-50 feet from roads to maintain fuelbreaks. Move slash away from the base of trees and don’t build slash piles close to structures. Slash is an important material for creating habitat piles and constructed logs – just keep these features away from roads, bases of trees, and structures.
- What do surrounding properties look like? Share the work you’ve done to make your forest more fire-safe with your neighbors—it might inspire them to consider doing the same, which benefits both of you.
Forest management and restoration activities that proactively manage wildfire are far more effective and less expensive than reactive firefighting.