In this third segment of an interview with Jeremy Keller, NFPA's Faith Berry asks about how the treatment of the immediate zone - from zero to 5 feet of the home - can impact the effectiveness and safety of first responders during a wildfire. Keller serves with the Macochee Joint Ambulance District and Bellefontaine Fire & EMS, in Ohio, and is a member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Wildland and Rural Fire Protection. He shared observations in the September 2014 Firewise Virtual Workshop on rural community preparedness. Here, he provides the responder perspective on what you can do to make both your home and your local firefighters safer from wildfire.
Q: From your perspective as a firefighter, what do responders look for in the 0 to 5-foot zone around a structure that would be of risk to them and their wildfire fighting operations?
A: My principle concerns are going to be any accumulation of firewood and junk (sorry, "treasures") on and around porches, decks and the perimeter of the structure. These represent both a concentration of fuel and a site for embers to congregate, so they are a double threat. The heat generated by a stack of firewood or pile of "stuff" in "open storage" can be tremendous, posing a threat to fire crews and potentially making a structure indefensible. You can practice good housekeeping by keeping these items well away from the home.
Utilities -- propane, gas, fuel oil and electrical service -- will be another big concern. All connections to the structure need to be well maintained, readily identifiable, and capable of being shut off, if needed. These can pose a serious hazard to fire crews, so please keep them properly maintained.
Another thing not mentioned in the preceding questions would be combustible mulches and landscaping up against structures. Mulching with pine straw, bark nuggets, and things like shredded wood creates a potential threat that is difficult to mitigate during an emergency. We may be able to quickly remove a small pile of firewood, but we can't really shovel out a landscape full of mulch.
Lastly, don't neglect outbuildings. Most efforts focus on the home itself, while sheds and other smaller structures get overlooked. You may not be that concerned about losing these outbuildings, but if they ignite, the heat and embers they produce may wind up burning down the main structure. So give these minor buildings some attention, too.
Q: Have you worked with any residents to help them clean up their 0-to-5-foot zone? What guidance did they need, and how did the before/after change the risk?
A: When I assist folks, I tell them that the best thing they can do is focus on the basics. I remind them that when one lives in a wildfire-prone area, they are not necessarily going to be able to do whatever they want with landscaping, porches, and decks.
I tell them that using inappropriate materials and failing to follow basic housekeeping practices not only puts your home in danger, it also puts your neighbors at risk. If your home goes up in flames, it will generate far more heat and embers than fire that is just burning vegetation. Such heat has the potential to ignite neighboring structures.
Failure to properly maintain your home also puts fire crews at risk. Your local fire department will make every effort -- sometimes to the point of taking unwise risks -- in an effort to protect homes in their community. Don't put their lives on the line through your negligence.