Fire dangers rise; homeowners can take precautions

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A small fire set Wednesday in the Bass State Forest by members of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service in Little Egg Harbor Township, NJ, as part of an effort to use “controlled burns” to eliminate pine needles, dead leaves and other dry, combustible material to deprive a potential future wildfire of fuel that could make it much worse. (AP photo/Wayne Parry)

With the beginning of March, arctic cold blasts may be on the wane, but in Oklahoma, cold and ice can give way to heat and fire. Experts say wildfire season comes to a crescendo in the month of March due to a combination of dry conditions and windy weather.

November through March are the driest months of the year for the Sooner State, so by the time March rolls around, there is plenty of dry fuel waiting when winds of 25, 30 and 40 mph come howling across the prairie. A single spark can launch a catastrophe, said John Weir, extension specialist for fire ecology at Oklahoma State University.

In his 30-year career at OSU, Weir has seen a lot of destruction, such as the Logan County wildfire that forced the evacuation of more than a thousand people and claimed several homes near Guthrie in 2014. Another fire burned 20 homes near Guthrie in 2010, and the same year, 30 homes were lost near Medford. Dozens of homes were burned in woodland areas north and south of Oklahoma City in 2013, and 30 more homes were lost when 70-foot flames swept through the prairie near Vici, claiming 200,000 acres in 2018.

Wildfire is a natural part of the Oklahoma environment, and when dry weather, warm temperatures and Oklahoma’s infamous high winds collaborate, firefighters do what they can to protect homes. But the responsibility begins with homeowners, Weir says.

“In times when there are big fires, there aren’t a lot of firefighters available to protect your home,” he said, “so, it’s up to you to protect your home the best way you can.”

Homes in rural areas are vulnerable, of course, but they are not the only ones. As urban development continues to sprawl into rural areas, the number of homes vulnerable to wildfire is increasing, Weir says.

He recommends several measures people can take to protect their homes from wildfire and they begin with eliminating flammable materials near the structure. That could be anything from trees and shrubs to firewood stacks and something as simple as leaves accumulated under a deck or other enclosed space.

After clearing flammables from the first 5 feet around the house, inventory what is within 25 feet of the house, he says. Are there cedars, pines or other trees with limbs that go all the way to the ground? They can be dangerous in a wildfire. Also, grass should be mowed short to reduce the amount of fuel a fire can use as it approaches a home.

Soffits can be another issue. The small vents under the eve of most houses can serve as entry points for embers, which can ignite flammable materials in attics. He says homeowners should cover soffit openings with the same type of metal mesh used to screen windows.

Barns and outbuildings can also be a concern, he says. Keep their doors and windows closed so embers can’t drift inside and ignite hay or other flammable material.

“Protective measures can save homes,” he said. “I’ve seen several homes where fires just burned around a house while other homes nearby burned to the ground because something around them caught fire,” Weir said.

“About 9% of Oklahomans are at high or extreme risk to wildfires and 21% are at moderate risk,” said Jeanne Homer, associate professor of architecture at Oklahoma State University. “The homes in Oklahoma most at risk are rural homes near trees and grasslands and vegetation, especially during a drought.”

Home designs can reduce vulnerability to wildfire, she said. After managing landscaping and clearing flammable debris, building design and construction is the last line of defense, she says. “A simple shape with few projections and indented corners has been shown to be more resilient because there are fewer areas that can catch debris,” she said. “Most codes and the insurance industry suggest the roof be made of fire-resistive, class A materials, such as asphalt shingles or concrete tiles. The walls should be a continuous fire-rated construction from the foundation to the roof, and its assembly of materials, like wood studs, insulation, gypsum board and siding should have undergone regulated testing.”

Prevention is a good investment in the long run, she said. Wildfires are very expensive, not only for the homeowner and insurance companies, but for the entire community. What you do is good for your neighbor and what your neighbor does is good for you, Homer said.

It comes down to this. If your neighbors don’t clear debris, that could become your problem, and if you don’t practice prevention, that could become your neighbors’ problem.

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