How to turn an at-risk house into a Firewise demonstration home

Blog Post created by michelesteinberg Employee on Sep 14, 2012

Bierschenks- beforeHow does a house become a Firewise Demonstration Home? Just ask Joanne and Dick Bierschenk of Cragsmoor, New York. Their home lies in close proximity to Sam’s Point Preserve, a 5,000 acre natural area managed by The Nature Conservancy, located on the Shawangunk Ridge in upstate New York.

The preserve is home to globally-rare dwarf pitch pines, which are adapted to periodic fire. Pitch pines possess serotinous cones, which will open only after the heat of a fire. The shrub layer is dominated by other highly flammable species such as scrub oak, huckleberry, blueberry, and mountain laurel.

This is precisely the vegetation that thickly surrounded the Bierschenk home, with continuous heavy fuels extending from their property to the preserve, making it possibly the most at-risk structure in Cragsmoor. Add to this volatile mix the fact that a wildfire has not occurred at Sam’s Point for nearly sixty years.Propane tank - before

Thanks to a joint project involving the New York State Firewise Council, headed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), and The Nature Conservancy, the Bierschenks can now rest more easily knowing they are safer in the event of a wildfire. This unique project will also provide a means by which other New York residents will have the opportunity to learn about the NY Firewise Communities program. 

The NYSDEC had received funding for a hazardous fuels reduction project through a 2010 Hazard Mitigation Grant. The grant also provided funding for the development of a NY Firewise public service announcement (PSA). So, as the Bierschenk mitigation project began, cameras began to roll.

Dick and Joanne were interviewed and asked if they had any initial apprehensions about the project. Dick, a devoted birder, was concerned that the birds he had enjoyed over the years may not visit their property after the removal of the vegetation. He also made it very clear he did not wish areas of the yard replaced with grass. With the house completely encompassed by natural vegetation, he had never had to cut grass and he was not about to start. They both worried about their loss of privacy.

Then, after a demonstration of a home risk assessment was filmed, the contractor and the heavyBierschenk -after equipment went to work. Once the vegetation had been removed, it was on to the second phase of the project. The Firewise Board of Cragsmoor decided to utilize funding, made available through the 2011 National Fire Plan State Fire Assistance Grant, which was secured by The Nature Conservancy, to assist in replacing a portion of the hazardous vegetation with new, fire-resistant plants.

The Firewise landscaping portion of this project and the designation of the Bierschenk house as a Firewise Demonstration will help to inform Cragsmoor residents about reducing fuels around their home and how to select attractive, less flammable vegetation. It will also serve as Cragsmoor’s 2012 Firewise renewal project. Cragsmoor is now entering its seventh year as a recognized Firewise Community and is presently the only Firewise Community in New York State.Propane tank - after

And how do the Bierschenks feel about their new surroundings? Early on in the project, Dick admitted he was thrilled he could access his back yard without having to go through the garage. He was also pleased with the type of grass they selected which does not require mowing. Joanne has unexpectedly found that she appreciates the openness of the yard and the ability to walk easily in the new grass, which she finds very attractive. The new landscaping has allowed their home to be better showcased and the natural world still remains on their property, as evidenced by a litter of rabbits born in a nest under one of their newly planted shrubs. 

It has been a great adjustment for them, but they are very appreciative of the effort that went into this project and the people who cared about them and who generously acted to ensure their safety. 

To learn more about fire resistant plants suitable for landscaping in the Northeast visit the Fire Performance Plant Selector website at www.fireplantselector.org

--Heidi Wagner

Photos from top to bottom: Bierschenks' home and propane tank before mitigation; home and tank after mitigation.