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PREPARING FOR THE UNTHINKABLE: WILDFIRE CONDITIONS REMAIN

Over two weeks in April, a massive wildfire devastated much of the countryside around Possum Kingdom Lake. Tragically, the fire destroyed 167 homes, 124 outbuildings and two churches, burning more than 126,000 acres before firefighters doused the flames.

Unfortunately, Possum Kingdom was not alone. Over the last several months, crews have been busy across the state fighting wildfires that have burned more than 3 million acres. Two firefighters have been killed.

The main culprit in these fires is the drought that has once again settled over the Lone Star State. Despite occasional rains at least 90 percent of the state ranged from extreme to exceptional drought. Couple these conditions with the periodic high winds that Texas is known for, and you have the makings of a dangerous situation.

The risk to homes and loved ones is too great to not take the risk of wildfires seriously. Given the ongoing drought conditions, we would all be wise to take some precautions to protect ourselves from wildfires.

Thankfully, you can act now to greatly decrease your chances of being touched by one of these devastating blazes by being aware, prepared and cautious.

Be Aware

Staying informed about the fire risk to your area is essential to keeping safe. This means educating yourself about the local wildfire history and areas that have been at risk in the past.

Keep an eye on weather conditions, especially during excessively dry times. The National Weather Service issues alerts when there is an increased fire danger. You can find the NWS fire weather page here.

Also, be aware of burn bans and other related local ordinances. You can see a current map of burn bans here.

Review the capacity of your local emergency response providers (municipal or volunteer fire department) to fight wildfires and keep emergency contact numbers handy. Think ahead of possible escape routes, discuss them and practice with your family. You might also consider having a professional come out to your home and look for ways to reduce your wildfire risk.

Be Prepared

There are many things you can do to reduce the risks to your home long before wildfire becomes an issue. Protection starts outside. With proper landscaping planning, you can greatly reduce the chance of a wildfire reaching your home.

First, establish safety zones around the house at 30 and 100 feet. The most critical area is within 30 feet, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency calls the “home ignition zone.” Within this area you should:

  • Clear leaves and woody debris from your roof and gutters
  • Remove all dead vegetation and debris from under decks, porches and touching the foundation.
  • Move firewood at least 100 feet and uphill from structures
  • Keep vegetation/landscaping trimmed low, well irrigated, free of dead material and separated to keep from forming a direct path for fire to reach your home.

Between 30 and 100 feet from your home is called the “defensible space zone.” Here you should:

  • Remove dead and dying grass, shrubs and trees
  • Thin the density of remaining plants
  • Replace hazardous vegetation with less flammable landscaping

There are additional steps you can take to prepare. Avoid using bark and wood chip mulch. Cut back branches and shrubs at least 15 feet from chimneys and stove pipes. Keep tree limbs at least 15 feet above the ground and ask your electricity provider to clear branches from power lines. You should also remove vines from walls. Install caps above chimneys and stovepipes to prevent sparks from spreading. Use fire-resistant siding and safety glass to help reduce the likelihood a fire will spread into your home.

Also, you will want to make sure roads leading to your property are clearly marked and wide enough for firefighting equipment. Your house number should be visible from the roadside.

Be Cautious

There are many things we can do day-to-day to reduce our risk – and they become all the more important when conditions favor wildfire.

If you grill or otherwise cook outdoors, clear an area at least 15 feet around where you plan to light a fire. If you use propane, keep it and the gas grill at least 15 feet from any structure. Avoid grilling or lighting any outdoor fires during high-risk times. Keep a source of water nearby anytime you are planning to grill, set off fireworks or with any other activity that might increase your risks of fire outdoors.

Most importantly, never leave a fire unattended.

If you smoke, use care when disposing of ashes and cigarette butts. Use proper receptacles and never simply stub out and leave butts on the ground or throw them from car windows.

If wildfire is approaching, heed evacuation orders. Staying behind to wet down grass or roofs will put you in danger of being trapped. More than 2,000 homes were threatened during the recent Possum Kingdom wildfires. While most residents heeded evacuation orders, some did not leave, putting themselves and rescue workers at risk. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt in this fire.

With simple preventative planning you can keep your family and home safe through wildfire season. For a checklist of things you can do to prepare your home for wildfire, please click here. You can also read about other wildfire safety tips at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Web site, here.