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John Myers, Forum News Service, Published May 19 2013

Creating 'defensible space' can be key to homes surviving wildfires

DULUTH, Minn. - When George Voyles moved to his dream retirement home in the woods of Adams County, Wis., he happened to pick up a brochure on how to defend rural property against wildfires.

So Voyles cut down trees that hung over his house and cut down pine trees nearby. He got rid of bushes and wood mulch landscaping around his house. He cut back brush, and he moved the firewood pile far out in his expanded yard of grass.

When the Cottonville fire erupted in May 2005, Voyles’ house was right in the path. Thirty of his neighbors’ homes and cabins, more than 90 structures in all, were destroyed. The fire burned the trees between Voyles’ house and the road and even reduced his firewood pile to ash.

But Voyles’ house was unscathed, and he’s convinced that his efforts to create a defensible space saved the day. He has since become the poster child for Wisconsin fire experts trying to convince rural landowners to clear trees, brush and other flammable stuff away from their homes in the woods.

“If you are going to move into the woods, learn how to live in the woods,” Voyles says in a fire prevention video.

With more people building and buying their dream cabin or home in their favorite corner of Northland woods, more and more buildings are put in the way of wildfires — fires like the 8,100-acre Germann Road blaze that burned last week in southern Douglas and Bayfield counties, destroying 17 homes and cabins in just a few hours.

Even to the untrained eye, as last week’s Germann Road fire still smoldered, a pattern was obvious: Of those cabins and homes that burned, many were tucked tight into the forest. Of those nearby that still stood when the smoke cleared, many had large, open yards.

Experts say that pattern has emerged after wildfires worldwide.

“We went in after the Cottonville fire and looked at which buildings burned and which did not … and it matched the national data very well. The houses that had cleared space were more likely to be standing after the fire,” Jolene Ackerman, wildland-urban interface coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told the Duluth News Tribune.

The wildland-urban interface is the place where the forest meets homes.

Ackerman said she’ll be heading to Douglas and Bayfield counties soon to assess the damage from last week’s fire, especially to take note of which homes burned and which didn’t. While it might have been luck, or the hard work of firefighters, that saved the houses, Ackerman said it’s just as likely the homes spared had a larger defensible space — more grass and less woods near the building, fewer pine trees and cleared of brush.

Wildfire experts have dubbed it “Firewise,” and a national program has been developed to encourage property owners and entire communities surrounded by woods to become Firewise-educated.

“They’re even teaching it in the schools up here. The fifth- and sixth-graders are going to come out and grade some properties to see if they have done their work,” said Mike Prom, chief of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department in Minnesota’s Cook County and a promoter of property owners taking steps to defend their own homes well before fires burn.

“You could take it to the extreme and put crushed rock or concrete around every home or cabin. But that’s not why people want to live here. They want the trees, they like the look of the forest up close,” Prom said. “The key is to finding a middle ground that keeps that woodsy feel but makes it safe.”

It’s the last thing any cabin owner or homeowner wants to hear when they move into a rural area, but trees close to a cabin act as a magnet to bring fire right up to the building, firefighting experts say.

In the Germann Road fire area, the dominant tree species are jackpine, red pine and scrub oak. Many home and cabin owners leave the trees standing around their buildings to keep that woodsy feel

“Unfortunately, those are the most flammable tree species we have in the Great Lakes region,” Ackerman said. “They are the most susceptible to wildfire under more conditions. They burn easy and they burn fast and they can carry the fire right up to the house.”

Fred Strand, DNR wildlife manager in Douglas County, said the sandy soil left behind by receding Glacial Lake Superior created a naturally drier forest ecology. Through the centuries, those conditions have favored species such as jackpine and scrub oak that tend to burn every 10 to 50 years, far more often than wetter forest areas.

Those tree species regenerate naturally after a fire, Strand noted. Even local wildlife, like sharp-tail grouse, have adapted to and thrive amid frequent fires. Deer move out of the fire’s way. Birds can re-nest nearby.

“Unfortunately, people have not adapted so well. This is a fire-prone area, fire-vulnerable, and people have to realize that and take some precautions,” Strand said. “The fuels consumption level of this fire (Germann Road) was very intense. If you didn’t have space between you and the fuels … there wasn’t much that didn’t burn.”

Prom, the Gunflint fire chief who also owns Voyageur Canoe Outfitters, has to deal with protecting hundreds of cabins in one of Minnesota’s most fire-prone and remote locations along the Canadian border. Prom’s department has worked through multiple large, destructive fires in recent years, including the Ham Lake fire in May 2007 that burned across 76,000 acres and destroyed 163 structures on both the Minnesota and Ontario sides of the border.

Prom’s department has gained notoriety for its efforts both at preventing buildings from burning in wildfires and for saving them once the fire starts. And he says it’s absolutely essential that home and cabin owners take steps beforehand to keep fires at bay.

“I didn’t cut down all the trees at my place. I’m an outfitter; I have a business where the people who come up here want to see trees,” he said. “But I cut some of them down and trimmed the ones close to the buildings up 6 or 8 feet so they don’t act like a ladder for the fire to climb up.”

The 1999 windstorm that downed trees along the Gunflint Trail followed by major fires in 2005 and 2006 frightened many property owners into clearing areas around their homes, Prom said, and those efforts “absolutely saved a lot of buildings when Ham Lake happened.”

Driveways also are critical, experts say. If the driveway isn’t wide enough, and if there’s no place for fire trucks to turn around at the cabin end of the trail, firefighters might not be able to help.

“If we can’t get in, we can’t save your cabin. It’s that simple,” Prom said.

Next week, when Prom’s department conducts a mock disaster and evacuation drill, they’ll place a small triangle under the roadside fire number sign at each address signifying it’s safe for firefighters to drive their rigs to the cabin. Driveways without a triangle are considered unsuitable for firefighters to enter.

“Even if it’s wide enough for a car, people have to realize some of our trucks are 12 feet high. The trees have to be trimmed back to that height. We have to be able to get in and out fast,” Prom said.

With a fire bearing down, firefighters must pick which buildings are defendable, savable, and which buildings are probably doomed. They also must decide whether going down a driveway and being unable to retreat quickly might put their crew at risk.

“We call it triage. … We have to make a decision on which places we try to help or not,” Prom said. “In the real deal, that’s what happens. Places that are inaccessible don’t get help.”

In the Germann Road fire, firefighters were able to use foam retardant on some homes before the fire came through — where they had enough room to maneuver and get out before the fire came.

“These firefighters have to make on-the-fly decisions on where to take a stand,” Ackerman said. “If your driveway is too narrow … or if the property is too cramped with vegetation, they may make the decision not to go in there.”

It may be more work and expense than most rural landowners want to take on, but installing large-scale sprinkler systems has been an incredibly effective defense against wildfires. In the Ham Lake fire, Prom says more than 50 structures were saved thanks to sprinklers watering down the buildings and surrounding yard before the fire came through.

Only one home with an operational sprinkler burned in the Ham Lake fire, and Prom said that’s probably because it somehow stopped working too soon before the fire hit.

The sprinkler pumps are set up to run on propane; once started, they will run without supervision long enough to keep the area wetter and cooler. They pump water out of a nearby lake or river and sprinkle a large area around the home. They dramatically raise the humidity level in the area, which helps stop fire in its tracks.

Prom has a sprinkler system that doused more than 3 acres of his property at Saganaga Lake, an area hard hit by the Ham Lake fire. Those 3 acres and all the buildings on them were spared. His unsprinkled acres burned, including trees and some out-buildings.

More than 300 sprinkler systems have been installed on properties in the Gunflint Trail department’s district, Prom noted, with more in the works.

“It’s not just the cabin or lodge you can save, but the trees around it,” Prom said. “The sprinklers saved the feeling of the place that makes people want to come here.”