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Wildfires: Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared!

Dustin Dunn, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, LTFR Prevention Division
LMUD Open House presentation, October 20, 2023

There is a national severe misunderstanding of how and why wildfires impact certain communities. People assume it’s like a tsunami that just sweeps through and destroys the whole neighborhood, but that’s not how it works; with our current understanding of structure ignition, there is a lot an individual can do to protect their home and their family so you’re not solely at the will of Mother Nature.

Fire History of America

Wildfires are inevitable…and important! During westward expansion, before we settled various areas, building fences and roads, wildfires would sweep across large areas of the United States, uninhibited, naturally evolving our ecosystem. In fact, there are some plants, such as the Longleaf pine, that require fire to germinate their seeds. We may have to get more comfortable with smoke being in the air as controlled buns should continue to be used as a tool to help maintain our ecosystems and protect our communities. Hopefully we can all be a part of instituting this change. Similar to how vultures, removing dead material, preening disease from being spread, fire removes dead materials and returns nutrients to the soil to help new things grow. After a fire, the flower bloom is incredible.

Texas uses a tiered approach to wildfire response and suppression. Local fire departments and counties are the first responders, with state response being activated as wildfires or conditions exceed the local ability to control.

California historically leads the country with the most wildfires and number of acres burned, but residential losses associated with wildland fires gained broader attention in 1985 when 1,400 homes were destroyed nationwide. This is when we, at a national level, started to figure out how we can prevent this type of destruction from occurring. The national “Wildland-Urban Interface” (WUI) Initiative was born: WUI is the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development. Firewise, Fire Adapted Communities, and other programs soon followed.

In Texas, wildfires are much more infrequent compared to the national average, but hot, dry, and windy weather creates the perfect mix for fires to develop and spread. In 2011, the driest year on record for Texas, a fire in Bastrop that burned for six weeks made the list of the national top 20 most destructive/catastrophic wildfires, and the most destructive in Texas history, with close to 2,000 homes destroyed across 43,000 acres.

Suburban sprawl is becoming an increasing cause of wildfire damage to residential areas, especially when development occurs into wildlands where these wildfires would occur naturally. While about 98 percent of wildfires are put out, the other two percent are the catastrophic fires that we hear about where all of the stars align to create an unstoppable natural disaster. Firefighters help prevent the spread of damage before wildfires occur by utilizing fuels mitigation programs to create defensible spaces in the communities they serve. Shaded fuel breaks in wooded areas (such as parks and other green spaces) help limit the uncontrolled spread of wildfire; they leave tree canopy intact, but remove the lower dense vegetation and cut off lower limbs so if a fire were to go through, it would gently pass underneath.  We also use prescribed burns to intentionally set and direct fires to let it burn out an area. This is what nature would naturally do.

But over 93 percent of Texas is privately owned. There are steps homeowners can (and should) take to prevent their home (and their neighbors’ homes) from being destroyed by a wildfire.

How Wildfires Start and Spread

red roof house, Maui wildfire, August 2023

Maybe the most iconic photo of recent wildfires is the red roof house from the Maui wildfire in August. High winds were to blame for fueling multiple fires in the area during a dry summer with low humidity. The blaze devoured the major tourist spot of Lahaina on the island’s western shore. It destroyed hundreds of area homes and businesses. Among the devastation, a red-roofed house along the shore was left relatively unscathed with the media referring to it now as the “miracle house.” Despite being nearly 100 years old, this wood house was able to withstand a historic fire thanks to the homeowner’s maintenance which helped reduce the home’s ability to ignite….as well as probably some very good luck!

A similar example is a house (interestingly also with a red roof) surviving a wildfire that consumed nearly 400 of the surrounding homes during the Laguna Beach, California fire storm of October 1993. Credit for its withstanding goes to careful construction details that reduced the amount of exposed combustible material and insulated the house long enough for the fire to pass by.

Laguna Beach, California fire storm, October 1993

Homes are regularly built in areas with known natural disaster potential, but they’re typically built to withstand the potential issues associated with that environment. For example, homes built in floodplains are built on stilts with heavy concrete.

For homes built in areas where wildfires are possible, they have to be built and maintained to withstand fire—not the flames necessarily, but the embers. It’s the embers from these fires being broadcast across wide areas that ignite susceptible fuel beds, causing a fire to grow and spread. With no readily combustible materials, homes can usually withstand the surrounding wildfire.

Embers can be thrown into and trapped in neighborhoods, leading to one structure igniting another. This isn’t about a tsunami of flames, but the aftermath: embers can travel for miles. Even after the front of the fire passes, homes can ignite from these embers, often without firefighters present to intervene. This leads to a domino effect where one burning structure ignites the next.

Fire Triangle

There are three basic things you need to have a fire. Fire cannot exist or be sustained without all of these components. While you do not have control over all elements, fire safety, at its most basic level, is based upon the principle of keeping fuel sources and ignition sources separate to reduce a fire risk:

  • Heat Source: enough heat is needed to raise the material to its ignition temperature
  • Oxygen: enough to sustain combustion
  • Fuel: any material capable of burning. Sources are any kind of combustible material including grass, shrubs, trees, houses, propane tanks, wood piles, and decks.

Fire Behavior Triangle

Once a fire ignites, its behavior depends on the three factors that make up the “Fire Behavior Triangle”:

  • Weather: Though a wildfire can happen anytime the conditions are right, the time of year influences the effects of fire. Weather conditions such as wind, temperature, and humidity contribute to fire behavior. Wind is one of the most important factors because it can bring a fresh supply of oxygen to the fire.
  • Topography: Topographical features, such as a slope and its direction, can help or hinder the spread of fire. A rocky slope can act as a great natural fire break due to a lack of fuel and wide gap of open space.
  • Fuel: A fuel’s composition, including moisture level, chemical makeup, and density, determines its degree of flammability.

Structure-to-Structure Ignition

Even if you have followed all guidelines to reduce a wildfire risk at your property, your neighbor’s home may cause your home to catch on fire so manage what you can.

This information is fairly disruptive to our entire way of life, our culture…how we are building our neighborhoods. This is probably why we haven’t been so successful with reducing a wildfire event that engulfs a whole community: if the homes were more spaces out, over 100 feet apart, they wouldn’t be igniting each other as often, but almost every suburban area has homes closer to each other that this making structure to structure ignition more likely.

The idea of a beautiful home needs to change, especially if you are in an area where wildfires are prone to occur. With nice plants right up next to the home. Shift already occurring to reduce water use and amount of maintenance required of traditional landscape. Cultural shift to native.

Cutting edge of structure ignition science: insurance institute of business and home safety facility in south Carolina where they build structures and shoot embers at them to study structure ignition, radiant heat tests to build structures next to each other in different orientations to see what happens national fire protection, come up with fire codes.

We’re all in this together we as a community need to do more to protect each other by better protecting our structures.

Right Materials, Proper Maintenance Helps Withstand Wildfires

Harden your home by following the guidelines of the Home Ignition Zone, developed by retired USDA Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen in the late 1990s, following some breakthrough experimental research into how homes ignite. A home’s ignition zone is up to 100 feet from the foundation. Everything in this space – including vegetation, the home itself, and other structures or attachments like decks, furniture, fences, and outbuildings, need to be assessed for fire prevention. Think of it like building a campfire: you start with the kindling before the full logs: remove smaller, more available fuels so the fire has a harder time starting that initial flame. Here are some proactive defense measures you can take around home:

  1. Immediate Zone: 0 – 5 ft space around your home is critical to protecting your investment from wildfire. There should be no combustible materials on the structure or in this space since it is the most vulnerable to embers. Just by reducing vegetation in this zone nearly doubles a property’s wildfire survival rate. This includes the removal of dead leaves from the ground, on the roof, and in gutters. Eaves, vents, and facets should be closed off with metal mesh screening to reduce embers from getting inside the home.
  2. Intermediate Zone: landscaping within 5 – 30 ft from your home should be designed with breaks that can help influence and decrease fire behavior. This could be through the installation of driveways, walkways/paths, patios, or decks. Tree placement should be planned to ensure the mature canopy is no closer than ten feet to the edge of the structure.
  3. Extended Zone: The goal in the space of 30 – 100 ft from your home is not to eliminate fire, but to interrupt its path and keep flames smaller and on the ground.

Home Ignition Zone Assessments Offered (for free)

For Lake Travis Fire Rescue (LTFR), it is priority No. 1 to help prevent or mitigate the loss of life, property associated with life safety, fire, and other disasters within our community.

In addition to strategically mitigating the threat of another dangerous fire season through fuel mitigation in community public spaces, LTFR offers FREE home risk assessments to help you and your family prepare for the worst. Is your home hardened? Do you have defensible space? Do you and your family have a “To Go Kit?” If you answered no to any of these questions, please sign up for your free assessment today by emailing wildfire@ltfr.org.