We have all seen the public service announcements, read the notices and heard the radio spots regarding “defensible space,” the area between your home and a potential fiery disaster. Mow, trim, prune and relocate combustible materials like firewood piles are advised. Living in the rural environs of Riverside County, we are more than familiar with the dangers of not maintaining that buffer and employing hazard reduction methods like weedwacking and mowing.
In 2005 a new state law came into effect that extended the defensible space clearance around homes and structures from 30 feet to 100 feet. Proper and safely conducted clearance to 100 feet increases the chance that your house will survive a wildfire. This important buffer also provides for firefighter safety as they work to protect your home and outbuildings from a wildfire.
Retired firefighter Candy Linville explained, “Light fuels – that would be grass, small shrubs and the weeds around your house and field – should be abated. Make sure to mow or clear in the early mornings before 10 a. m. and make sure you trim up all your trees around your house near your eaves and your rain gutters.” She continued, “Proper defensible space for your home during fire season is very important, it’s very vital. Be safe, not sorry.”
But how can this be done safely? In the CAL FIRE area of San Diego County for the year 2014, improper equipment use caused 16 percent of the blazes. That’s 16 percent of fires that could have been easily prevented with a little education and a dash of common sense.
The “One Less Spark” program sponsored by The California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (CWCG) has the following safety tips posted on their website:
Mow before 10 a.m., but never when it’s windy or excessively dry. Lawn mowers are designed to mow lawns, not weeds or dry grass. Metal blades striking rocks can create sparks and start fires. Use caution.
In wildland areas, spark arresters are required on all portable gasoline-powered equipment. This includes tractors, harvesters, chain saws, weedeaters and mowers. Keep the exhaust system, spark arresters and mower in proper working order and free of carbon buildup. Use the recommended grade of fuel and don’t top it off [over fill].
In wildland areas, grinding and welding operations require a permit and 10 feet of clearance. Keep a shovel and a fire extinguisher ready to use. Don’t drive your vehicle onto dry grass or brush. Hot exhaust pipes and mufflers can start fires that you won’t even see – until it’s too late! Keep a cellphone nearby and call 911 immediately in case of fire.
To protect water quality, do not clear vegetation near waterways to bare soil. Vegetation removal can cause soil erosion especially on steep slopes. Always keep soil disturbance to a minimum.
The website also advises, “Whether working to create defensible space around your home, just mowing the lawn, or pulling your dirt bike over to the side of the road, if you live in a wildland area you need to use all equipment responsibly. Lawn mowers, weedeaters, chain saws, grinders, welders, tractors and trimmers can all spark a wildland fire. Do your part, the right way, to keep your community fire safe.”
Carletta Gordon Stokes, Owner/Broker of CGS Real Estate stressed, “Defensible space is important for sure. There is also the pride of ownership. Clearing weeds shows a potential buyer that the home they are looking at has been taken care of. If the outside is cleared of weeds and looks nice, the inside is expected to be similarly cared for.” Not only do house buyers and the fire department notice, but so can your homeowners insurance company. Many residents opt to hire professionals to handle the task. Tree and mowing services, weed control companies, and other contractors are available to help. Making sure the contractors are properly licensed and can provide proof of workers’ compensation and general liability insurance is a good idea for peace-of-mind.
Johnathan Schmidt of Schmidt Ranch Services in Anza, suggests, “For weed abatement, there are several things we do for safety reasons. We never fuel up where there is any brush, always on dirt. We never set down the weed eater on grass after running it, we set it down on dirt or pavement. We use plastic blades, not metal and I never run a mower during the dead, dry times. We hand-pull, shovel and sometimes use tractors with a gannon mostly. A mower through thick weeds is a disaster waiting to happen – the metal blade can spark; the deck can hold spilled fuel and even leaked gas from filling can catch fire if you have even a tiny spill because the motor is hot and low to the ground.”
Hazard reduction is the key to defensible space around your home, and these tips should be heeded. It is unfortunate that sometimes the very act of creating the safe space can cause a wildfire.
Cece Hotchkiss, retired Station 52 volunteer firefighter, offered this advice as well, “When one mows, clear the area as best as you can before mowing. Start at outer edge and mow so the debris blows inward, thus creating a fire break. This way if you do spark a rock or other object, the fire is hopefully contained to the island you are creating. This is the same thing when weed-eating. It is best if doing either to do so in the morning or late evening, the cooler parts of the day. A hose nearby and a shovel would be a good idea, also.”
Hotchkiss added, “Remember, 100 feet of defensible space around your home, and don’t forget the critters, this may just save you the heartache and the destruction of your home. This is something you should work on throughout the year, and not just because its ‘that time’ for fire inspections. Be aware of what is around you and the hazards. Understand that fire is a living, breathing force. Being prepared for the worst and hoping for the best is your best option.”