Wildfire Strikes Home

By Josh Shroyer | January 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2002

The leaf pile was no larger than a kitchen table. A homeowner set it ablaze in late winter to clean up his yard before the grass started growing. A gust of wind sent burning leaves across the yard toward the neighbor's house.

The local fire department extinguished the fire, but not before it had burned about an acre and a half of ground, a recreational vehicle, two automobiles and, worst of all, a home and all its contents. This included generations of family photos and antique furniture-mementos that cannot be replaced.

Beside a gravel road, a fellow slows his car, strikes a match and throws it into dry brush. He's an arsonist, a criminal. A swift wind spreads the fire quickly. A Conservation Department pilot flying a fire-detection mission spots the fire about 20 minutes later. By then, the fire has engulfed about 10 acres and is spreading rapidly.

Conservation Department firefighters and local firefighters work all day trying to contain the blaze. They finally put it out, but not before it burns almost a thousand acres, two homes, three vehicles, some ornamental trees and a barn full of hay for the winter. It also caused considerable smoke damage to nearby property.

Wildfires are a constant threat in the outskirts of our cities. Wildland firefighters call them urban interface wildfires. They are most dangerous to homes built on small, wooded lots and to vacation cabins in the middle of the forest. Even if the home is spared or saved, the fires often destroy sheds, garages and outbuildings, campers, trailers, pets and livestock.

Wildland firefighters classify homes in the wildland/urban interface as defensible or non-defensible. Firefighters stand a reasonable chance of saving those classified as defensible.

Homes classified as non-defensible have little or no chance of being saved from flames.

Taking preventive measures to make your home in the woods defensible can pay big dividends when a wildfire comes to call.

Making a home defensible requires that you maintain at least 30 feet of lawn around the entire structure. Ornamental plants, especially flammable ones, should not be planted right next to the home. Wood piles have to be at least 50 feet from the structure, and there should be no piles of leaves around the home or under decks. Trees, especially evergreens, should be pruned up at least six feet off the ground. Driveways should be clearly marked and clear enough to allow fire trucks to enter and turn around.

Homes considered non-defensible pose a serious safety risk to firefighters. They put firefighters in tight places next to combustible materials, such as chemicals and fuel in sheds and garages, which may explode when exposed to fire. The risk of trying to save a non-defensible house from fire is not worth unreasonably endangering the lives of firefighters.

Fighting wildfires in the wildland/urban interface is expensive and requires a lot of equipment and manpower. In many interface fires, a fire truck is deployed to protect a defensible structure, or a group of structures in close proximity. This reduces the amount of equipment or resources left to actually fight the fire. In some cases, a large wildfire may endanger dozens of homes, but there may not be enough resources to adequately protect every critical structure.

Wildland/urban interface fires take longer to suppress because firefighters and equipment are engaged in protecting homes and looking for other structures that may need protecting. This gives a fire the opportunity to grow in both area and intensity. Only when all defensible structures have been secured or additional resources arrive on scene can firefighters actually begin suppressing a fire.

The Conservation Department is facing the increasing threat from wildland/urban interface fires by taking a more aggressive role in fire management. For example, the Department sends firefighters to assist in fighting fires in other states, including Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Texas, and Florida. The valuable experience learned from fighting such large fires better prepares our local firefighters to combat urban interface fires in Missouri.

In addition, personnel from the Department's Forestry Division help train local fire departments in urban interface fire suppression tactics. They also provide information for homeowners to make their homes defensible. When everyone works together, we can reduce the threat of wildfires and reduce the devastating effects of fires in the urban interface.

Contact your local Department of Conservation forester for information on how you can help make your home more defensible against wildland/urban interface wildfires.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer