Home insurance

Right now is the time to Firewise your property

Tuesday, April 17, 2018by  Jon Osterberg

Man saws tree while thinning property the prevent wildfireWashington's official wildfire season began April 15, and now is the time for rural homeowners to rid their property of wildfire fuel. It's time to Firewise.

A key Firewise practice is to build defensible space around your home, so that if fire encroaches, it will find little fuel.

I first learned about Firewise 14 years ago when we bought our second home on 5 acres near Cle Elum. Growing up in Seattle's Eastside suburbia, I was ignorant of the danger that lurks in the dry timber country east of the Cascades. Not anymore.

My learning curve started long before the disastrous Taylor Bridge Fire of 2012, which flared just 6 miles east of our cabin and burned 272 structures. Washington's annual blazes that followed further focused my attention: Colockum Tarps, 2013; the 256,000-acre Carlton Complex, 2014; the even-larger Okanogan and Chelan Complexes, 2015.

A shed burns, demonstrating how fast wildfire can spread on rural propertyI learned more as I managed PEMCO's "Don't Get Burned!" wildfire awareness campaigns, starting in 2014. We polled Eastern Washington residents about Firewise awareness, conducted demonstration burns for news media, and turned a herd of goats loose on thick brush. It was a great education teaming up with partners like Kittitas County Fire District 7 Chief Russ Hobbs and his firefighters.

By 2016 I'd taken huge steps in clearing fire fuel from my own acreage. I sawed off tree branches within 15 feet of the ground, felled dead or diseased trees, and removed windblown dead branches. Everything that wasn't cut into firewood got stuffed into a chipper-shredder. I covered my dirt driveway with crushed rock, a natural fire barrier.

Fancying myself well-informed about Firewise, last May I was surprised to hear from my home insurer – PEMCO – that my Cle Elum residence had recently been reassessed and deemed at risk for wildfire. Say what?!

Steve, a senior property inspector, met me at my cabin to point out his concerns. He began by commending me on the work I'd done to clear my acreage of "ladder fuel" (low-hanging branches, brush, tall grass). But apparently, I'd been so focused on my trees – we live on former Plum Creek timberland – that I'd overlooked the home itself.

Yes, I built a nice buffer surrounding the cabin, including crushed-rock walkways that surround it. But they're now matted with dead pine needles. My wood-handle tools, saw horses, and lumber stacked below my back porch? They're fuel, just waiting to be ignited by wayward embers.

Steve reminded me that open eaves and soffits will trap embers, so they must be enclosed. My metal roof works in my favor, a plus. But I have exposed gaps in my siding that also can trap embers, so they must be caulked. Ideally – big dollars needed – I should replace my wood siding with nonflammable cement board.

My two 500-gallon propane tanks lie a good distance from our cabin, which is good, but the brush and grass abutting them must go.

Steve was respectful and helpful, but in the end, I felt sheepish. The guy who launched "Don't Get Burned!" (me) turned out to be a "do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do" guy.

Two weeks ago the last winter snow melted at our cabin, so I began tackling my Firewise chores. I moved our metal house numbers so that my address is visible when first responders arrive. I raked and blew the pine needles off the walkways.

Building a rock buffer around propane tanks lessens wildfire dangerAround the propane tanks, I pulled up all the vegetation by their roots, then spread Casoron granules to keep weeds from growing. I built a perimeter wall with rocks, fetched nearly 2 yards of clean, small rock from a landscaper, and spread it around the tanks. This weekend I'll start enclosing my eaves and soffits with ¼-inch wire mesh (unless my fear of heights bites me).

With good weather and a cooperative tennis elbow, I may have our cabin off "probation" by mid-May.

Don't get burned!

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