Reducing the risk of severe wildfires has become an ever more concerning issue for California landowners—particularly those with forested property. Questions that all forest landowners should ask themselves include, “Is my property in a condition that could survive a wildfire? If a wildfire should occur, could firefighters easily access my property?” If the answer to either of those questions is not a clear yes, it’s time to get to work on a forest management plan. Whether you have several forest acres or thousands, developing an effective management plan can reduce risk for severe wildfire damage while increasing overall forest and wildlife health. This is one of our Sonoma fire safety experts’ major areas of focus for clients of Firebrand Safety Systems. Here are a few ways to check your fire safety.
1. Understanding the role of wildfires in an ecosystem – It’s important to note that the goal of a forest management plan is primarily to limit the severity of wildfires, not to entirely eliminate their possibility. Wildfires, in fact, play an important ecological role that, when properly managed, can actually increase the diversity and productivity of forest ecosystems. The danger lies in uncontrolled, high-intensity forest fires that wipe out entire ecosystems and endanger building structures and people.
2. Reduce surface fuels – One of the most effective strategies in making wildfires more controllable is reducing surface fuels. Doing so reduces potential flame lengths, preventing fire from reaching tree crowns. Defined as “ladder fuels,” brush and small trees are the main target of this offensive.
3. Thin tree growth – The most effective way to thin is to remove smaller trees while leaving larger, healthier ones. This strategy is known as “thinning from below” and removes ladder fuels, raises the base of tree crowns, and increases the spacing between crowns. The spacing you will need between tree crowns depend on factors such as steep slope angles, locations with high wind, and the density of crown growth, but a good rule of thumb is to not have branches of adjacent trees overlapping. Tree spacing need not be even, and you may even want to leave small patches of closely growing trees for wildlife benefit. Finally, it’s important to recognize that over spacing trees can have harmful effects, especially if they fall below state stocking thresholds.
4. Firebreaks – Unlike areas that have their surface fuel reduced, firebreaks are areas that have had all vegetation and organic matter removed down to the soil. Firebreaks are used to protect building structures and valuable resources by halting an advancing surface flame. Two to 15 feet wide at minimum, a firebreak should be two to three times as wide as the height of the closest surface fuel source (grass, shrubs, etc.). To minimize maintenance and prevent weed growth, consider laying down a landscape fabric in the cleared area and covering it with gravel.
5. Establish access – Does your property have roads that provide access to all parts? Are the roads you do have well-maintained and accessible to firefighting equipment? If not, start with an accurate map or aerial photo of the property and draw possible routes. Scout the areas in person to see if construction is possible, and consider consulting with your local fire chief before beginning construction. Make sure you also check in with your state forestry agency about rules regarding road construction. Keep roads well maintained by pruning overhanging vegetation, clearing roads of obstacles, and creating a fuel break that extends 10 feet from the center of the road. Regrade roads as needed and establish drainage structures such as water bars, ditches, and culverts which you regularly inspect.
6. Ensure water availability – Creeks, ponds, rivers, and even swimming pools are all excellent water sources. Consider diverting spring water into a tank or cistern as an emergency water source, or check with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office about the possibility of constructing a pond. If your primary water source is a well, think about having an emergency generator hooked up to your pump in case of a power failure. Establish all-weather access to your water source, with a 45-foot minimum radius for fire engine navigation.
For complete fire safety consulting, please contact our fire safety team at Firebrand Safety Systems serving Napa, Mendocino, Sonoma, Marin, and surrounding communities in Northern California. We’re dedicated to helping you stay safe this fire season. Schedule a consultation if fire risk on your forest property is of concern.