Springtime always brings much more than April rains and May flowers. It also brings flooding, wiping out home after home and causing millions of dollars worth of damage every year. It brings out something else as well that we should all be aware of, and prepare for, and that is the seasonal wildfires that occur every springtime. Long dormant grass has dried out and been covered by snow, and with the warming sun, the snow melts, exposing the dried grasses and plant material to the warming sun of the season.

That combination can cause some pretty high temperatures in a volatile mixture of organic material prone to easy burning, and the high winds we receive every year at this time can fan a smoldering smudge into a roaring wildfire in no time at all. Here in Maine we’ve had several incidences already, and I’m sure the numbers are climbing from coast to coast. As the snow pack melts the danger increases until the new green growth appears, squelching the power of the dead. At least to a point. the danger never really disappears, but green growth is hard to burn without an artificial accelerant.

FEMA has a page with a lot of great information on wildfires, and what to do before, during, and after a wildfire, should you happen to be caught in one. There’s a lot of really good advice and I suggest you give it thoughtful consideration before ignoring it. But first, here’s a relevant news article demonstrating the severity of the problem.

Brush Fires Break Out Across State (from MPBN broadcasting)

03/16/2010 2:33 PM ET  

Several fires have broken out in Penobscot and Washington counties as the snow cover disappears, exposing dry grass.

The lack of snow cover is being blamed for a rash of grass and brush fires that have broken out across the state.  Yesterday, firefighters in Penobscot and Washington counties battled blazes in several communities, as wind and dry, exposed grass combined to create a fire hazard.

It’s an annual problem, but officials tell the Bangor Daily News that it’s cropped up earlier than usual this year.  Hermon Fire Chief Larry Willis told the paper that his department hasn’t issued any burn permits in the past week because it’s too dry and windy.

Willis is urging people to be careful disposing of smoking materials.  Maine Forest Service officials say some of the recent fires were likely caused by the improper disposal of smoking materials.

In part, the problem persists because a lot of people can’t seem to equate a wildfire with spring weather. We usually hear about forest fires in the summertime, especially in drought years, not in the cold wet springtime.

But wildfires can happen when it is wet, and they do. So, we need to remember to include fires of this type as well when we develop our emergency preparedness plans for our homes and families. California is not the state in the country that has this sort of problem, so don’t reject the notion that you need to learn about fire safety. Always remember that failing to prepare is just preparing to fail.

From FEMA at http://www.fema.gov/hazard/wildfire/wf_prepare.shtm:

Prepare for a Wildfire

Listed here are several suggestions that you can implement immediately. Others need to be considered at the time of construction or remodeling. You should also contact your local fire department, forestry office, emergency management office or building department for information about local fire laws, building codes and protection measures. Obtain local building codes and weed abatement ordinances for structures built near wooded areas.

Find Out What Your Fire Risk Is
Create Safety Zones Around Your Home
Protect Your Home

Learn about the history of wildfire in your area. Be aware of recent weather. A long period without rain increases the risk of wildfire. Consider having a professional inspect your property and offer recommendations for reducing the wildfire risk. Determine your community’s ability to respond to wildfire. Are roads leading to your property clearly marked? Are the roads wide enough to allow firefighting equipment to get through? Is your house number visible from the roadside?

Learn and teach safe fire practices.

  • Build fires away from nearby trees or bushes.
  • Always have a way to extinguish the fire quickly and completely.
  • Install smoke detectors on every level of your home and near sleeping areas.
  • Never leave a fire–even a cigarette–burning unattended.
  • Avoid open burning completely, and especially during dry season.

Always be ready for an emergency evacuation.

Evacuation may be the only way to protect your family in a wildfire. Know where to go and what to bring with you. You should plan several escape routes in case roads are blocked by a wildfire.

All vegetation is fuel for a wildfire, though some trees and shrubs are more flammable than others. To reduce the risk, you will need to modify or eliminate brush, trees and other vegetation near your home. The greater the distance is between your home and the vegetation, the greater the protection.

Create a 30-foot safety zone around the house.
Keep the volume of vegetation in this zone to a minimum. If you live on a hill, extend the zone on the downhill side. Fire spreads rapidly uphill. The steeper the slope, the more open space you will need to protect your home. Swimming pools and patios can be a safety zone and stone walls can act as heat shields and deflect flames.  In this zone, you should also do the following:

  • Remove vines from the walls of the house.
  • Move shrubs and other landscaping away from the sides of the house.
  • Prune branches and shrubs within 15 feet of chimneys and stove pipes.
  • Remove tree limbs within 15 feet of the ground.
  • Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns.
  • Replace highly flammable vegetation such as pine, eucalyptus, junipers and fir trees with lower growing, less flammable species. Check with your local fire department or garden store for suggestions.
  • Replace vegetation that has living or dead branches from the ground-level up (these act as ladder fuels for the approaching fire).
  • Cut the lawn often keeping the grass at a maximum of 2 inches. Watch grass and other vegetation near the driveway, a source of ignition from automobile exhaust systems.
  • Clear the area of leaves, brush, evergreen cones, dead limbs and fallen trees.

Create a second zone at least 100 feet around the house.
This zone should begin about 30 feet from the house and extend to at least 100 feet. In this zone, reduce or replace as much of the most flammable vegetation as possible. If you live on a hill, you may need to extend the zone for several hundred feet to provide the desired level of safety.

Clear all combustibles within 30 feet of any structure.

  • Install electrical lines underground, if possible
  • Ask the power company to clear branches from power lines.
  • Avoid using bark and wood chip mulch
  • Stack firewood 100 feet away and uphill from any structure.
  • Store combustible or flammable materials in approved safety containers and keep them away from the house.
  • Keep the gas grill and propane tank at least 15 feet from any structure. Clear an area 15 feet around the grill. Place a 1/4 inch mesh screen over the grill. Always use the grill cautiously but refrain from using it all during high risk times.

Remove debris from under sun decks and porches.
Any porch, balcony or overhang with exposed space underneath is fuel for an approaching fire. Overhangs ignite easily by flying embers and by the heat and fire that get trapped underneath. If vegetation is allowed to grow underneath or if the space is used for storage, the hazard is increased significantly. Clear leaves, trash and other combustible materials away from underneath sun decks and porches. Extend 1/2-inch mesh screen from all overhangs down to the ground. Enclose wooden stilts with non-combustible material such as concrete, brick, rock, stucco or metal. Use non-combustible patio furniture and covers. If you’re planning a porch or sun deck, use non-combustible or fire-resistant materials. If possible, build the structure to the ground so that there is no space underneath.

Enclose eaves and overhangs.
Like porches and balconies, eaves trap the heat rising along the exterior siding. Enclose all eaves to reduce the hazard.

Cover house vents with wire mesh.
Any attic vent, soffit vent, louver or other opening can allow embers and flaming debris to enter a home and ignite it. Cover all openings with 1/4 inch or smaller corrosion-resistant wire mesh. If you’re designing louvers, place them in the vertical wall rather than the soffit of the overhang.

Install spark arrestors in chimneys and stovepipes.
Chimneys create a hazard when embers escape through the top. To prevent this, install spark arrestors on all chimneys, stovepipes and vents for fuel-burning heaters. Use spark arrestors made of 12-gauge welded or woven wire mesh screen with openings 1/2 inch across. Ask your fire department for exact specifications. If you’re building a chimney, use non-combustible materials and make sure the top of the chimney is at least two feet higher than any obstruction within 10 feet of the chimney. Keep the chimney clean.

Use fire resistant siding.
Use fire resistant materials in the siding of your home, such as stucco, metal, brick, cement shingles, concrete and rock. You can treat wood siding with UL-approved fire retardant chemicals, but the treatment and protection are not permanent.

Choose safety glass for windows and sliding glass doors.
Windows allow radiated heat to pass through and ignite combustible materials inside. The larger the pane of glass, the more vulnerable it is to fire. Dual- or triple-pane thermal glass, and fire resistant shutters or drapes, help reduce the wildfire risk. You can also install non-combustible awnings to shield windows and use shatter-resistant glazing such as tempered or wireglass.

Prepare for water storage; develop an external water supply such as a small pond, well or pool.

Other safety measures to consider at the time of construction or remodeling.

  • Choose locations wisely; canyon and slope locations increase the risk of exposure to wildland fires.
  • Use fire-resistant materials when building, renovating, or retrofitting structures.
  • Avoid designs that include wooden decks and patios.
  • Use non-combustible materials for the roof.
  • The roof is especially vulnerable in a wildfire. Embers and flaming debris can travel great distances, land on your roof and start a new fire. Avoid flammable roofing materials such as wood, shake and shingle. Materials that are more fire resistant include single ply membranes, fiberglass shingles, slate, metal, clay and concrete tile. Clear gutters of leaves and debris.
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