Fire experts want Utah homeowners to consider risk, take steps to prevent losses

Sunday , September 17, 2017 - 5:00 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Still sifting through the ashes from the Uintah Fire, emergency officials want Utahns living in high-risk areas to prepare for the next big blaze.

Fire season is starting to wind down in the state, but that doesn’t mean homeowners shouldn’t remain vigilant. A little preparation goes a long way, especially for those living along the wildland urban interface, or WUI.

“That’s anywhere development interacts with an undeveloped area that has grasses, brush and vegetation that’s natural,” said Fire Marshal Brandon Thueson with the Weber Fire District.

The WUI includes lots of homes and neighborhoods in Northern Utah along benches, in the mountains or next to open grassy tracts of land. As Utah’s population continues to grow, new homes being built in these areas create more fuel for wildland fires and put more people at risk.

“As we grow as a community, we’re going to face that more and more,” Thueson said. “It’s a desirable place to live. People want the view, they want to be in the foothills and in the wooded areas. It’s going to be a little more of a challenge as more and more development comes in.”

Many homeowners in Utah don’t realize they’re living in the WUI, said Jennifer Hansen, the wildland urban interface program coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands

“I would say, probably 20 percent of people are really aware of their risk,” she said. 

Instead, Utahns tend to give more attention to earthquakes, floods and landslides, Hansen said. Wildfires, however, are statistically far more common natural disasters in the state. 

“People, they just assume we’re going to have the Blackhawks and the retardants and we’re going to put it out,” Hansen said.” We hear all the time, ‘we pay our property taxes, the fire department will save us.’”

A few preventative measures to protect the home take far less time than tallying up losses and working with insurance companies.

Firewise landscapes

Fire researchers and firefighters encourage homeowners to think about their properties in three “firewise landscaping” zones

The first zone extends 30 feet back from the house. Vegetation should be regularly watered and well-spaced. Trees should be pruned so they don’t hang over the roof. Plants in this zone should be resin-free and less prone to burning. 

“You don’t want big pine trees close to the home in that zone,” Hansen said. “You don’t want gamble oak that’s very prevalent on these bench communities. It’s oil-based, everything about it is meant to burn.”

Zone two includes the space 30 to 100 feet from the home. It, too, should be irrigated on a regular basis and thinned of flammable vegetation. It’s important to include firebreaks in this area, too, like driveways, sidewalks or lawns. Zone three, between 100 and 200 feet from the home, should also be thinned of smaller plants and trees that could fuel a fire. Larger trees should be thinned so their canopies don’t touch.

Ember attacks

Jason Curry, information officer with Forestry, Fire and State Lands said it’s important to think about fire danger on a small scale, too.

“Clean gutters out every so often. That’s a huge cause of wildlife during phase we call the ‘ember attack,’” he said. “I think a lot of folks think when a fire comes, it’s a big flaming front that burns everything it its path ... but more often than not, what causes homes to be lost is the ember attack.”

During a blaze like the Uintah fire, a home is in danger from direct flames or radiant heat for 10 to 15 minutes as the fire front passes. An ember attack, however, poses a threat for 30 minutes before the fire front and up to eight hours after it passes. 

“As you look around afterward, it seems the fire is fairly fickle, it takes one house and leaves another,” Curry said. “In reality, those houses that survived didn’t have a good place to have an ember take hold.”

The ember attack played a particularly big role in the Uintah Fire due to the heavy winds, Thueson said. 

“Winds were strong, 40 to 50 mile per hour gusts,” he said. “What it will do is pick up embers, blow those embers into other structures and carry (the fire) into other places.”

Fire experts urge homeowners to assess their homes for areas that could turn wind-blown embers into full-on flames. Wooden shingles and siding pose a large risk and should be replaced. Wood piles shouldn’t be stored near the home or under decks. Patio furniture — and especially flammable cushions — should be stored away from the home, too.

“They’ve done testing to show gable vents are susceptible to having embers blow right into attic, which can cause attic fire in the home,” Thueson said. “So simple things like putting screen mesh on openings will keep embers from going into the attic.”

Where’s the WUI?

Utahns can determine whether they live in the high-risk WUI zone through an interactive map developed by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal shows a property’s fire risk and outlines steps to protect it.

Local fire departments and staff from the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands will also conduct free inspections of residential properties.

“We will walk the property with the homeowner and tell them what makes their home vulnerable,” Hansen said.

From there, homeowners should take steps to educate their neighbors about their fire risk, too.

“It takes a whole community to come together and want to address this issue as a group,” Thueson said. “We can’t go in and tell (homeowners) they have to do these things. We can make suggestions, give advice, but ultimately they have to be the ones to make the decisions and to follow through.”

For more information about firewise landscaping, visit utahlivingwithfire.com. The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands also has a Utah Firewise Living booklet available for free online. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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