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Here’s how to protect your property from wildfire

Tuesday, May 2, 2017by  Jon Osterberg

fir tree branches pruned for wildfire protectionMay is wildfire-prevention month, and this Saturday is National Wildfire Preparedness Day, when rural communities across America hold workshops showing property-owners how Firewise principles can save them grief.

At PEMCO, we collect our wildfire-prevention tips under the title "Don't Get Burned!"

Firewising is easy. It simply takes a little time. This year I spent two weekends doing it solo, and if a 63-year-old guy with a paunch can do it, you can too.

The Firewise principles I tackled involve creating defensible space, and eliminating "ladder fuel." If you own a place that borders unoccupied wildland (a "wildland-urban interface," or WUI), take note.

Defensible space: Reduce fire fuel to create a buffer extending at least 100 feet from your home. Use trees and shrubbery sparingly. Opt instead for a large, well-watered, closely cropped lawn. Mulch with pumice or gravel, not beauty bark. Rid the ground of brush and any dead foliage. Prune any branches that hang over your roof. In essence, don't let your home become fuel for a wildfire.

Ladder fuel: If your property is forested or has several trees, you need to prevent a grass or brush fire from jumping into low-hanging branches. You'd be shocked at how fast flames will climb a tree, igniting it clear up to the crown.

Years ago I created defensible space around my cabin, and each spring I remove winter blow-down, new brush, and pine needles that have gathered in nooks and crannies. Then I reduce fuel on the rest of my 5 acres, formerly Plum Creek timberland with plenty of trees.

woman uses long handled pruner to prune branches to prevent wildfireFirst, buy yourself a long-handled pruning saw. The ones I see at Costco and Home Depot also have a pruning blade. A chainsaw (and safety glasses) comes in handy, especially if you want to save larger cuttings for firewood. Get some heavy gloves, and light-colored clothing is best for working in the woods (it's easier to spot and brush off ticks).

Take a good look at your property. The National Fire Protection Association says ideally, conifers – around the Northwest that includes fir, pine, cedar, hemlock, and larch trees – should be spaced 20 feet between their crowns, or 30 feet between clusters of two or three trees. Thin out any dense growth, especially diseased or dying trees.

On all remaining mature trees, remove any limbs that hang within 15 feet of the ground. Don't look at where the branches stem from the trunk – look at their tips. You might see branches that jut from the trunk 15 feet overhead but whose tips sag far below that into the ignition zone. Imagine a brush fire and ask yourself, could flames leap into the branches? If in doubt, prune.

Caution: You can kill small trees if you prune them too high. Say you have a tree 20 feet tall. Don't prune upwards 15 feet. The general rule for smaller growth is, prune no more than one-third of its foliage.

Now, what do you do with all the pruned brush and branches? You could gather them into piles and, if the ground is still moist, wait for a gray windless day to burn them, providing that's permitted in your area.

pruned branches stacked into piles awaiting chipperBetter still, stack all the foliage into piles with the blunt ends facing one direction. Then rent a chipper-shredder and turn your piles into mulch. If it's not practical to tow a chipper to your piles, stack your piles alongside an accessible spot.

In my case, I drove my pickup truck across my acreage and stopped at each pruning site. I dropped a thick rope across the bed of my truck, then laid the branches atop the rope with their blunt ends abutting the tailgate. Once I had a full load I tossed the other end of the rope over the pile, cinched the rope into a knot, and drove to my cabin's access road where I tugged each load onto the shoulder, leaving a tidy line of 15 piles for the chipper.

men stuff pruned branches into chipper shredderThe machine then blew all the wood chips back onto my property, leaving a harmless dusting of mulch.

You too can do this, but don't procrastinate until all the greenery from our wet spring turns into wildfire fuel. Don't get burned!

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