Thursday, April 8, 2021

Fire Season

Winter is over, spring has begun, and fire season is upon us. While the wildfires and forest fires that plague California get the most coverage in the media, most of the US is susceptible to brush fires that can destroy homes and property. The scale is what's different: California and the western US have large areas of forest that can burn while most of the rest of the country have the wooded areas broken up by roads and open fields.

Climate conditions have a lot to do with wild fire risk; hot and dry areas will always burn better than cool and wet ones. Thunderstorms are more common in the spring, and lightning is a common cause of wild fires. Here in the Midwest, we don't have forests but we do have large tracts of native prairie owned by the states, and prairies like to burn. While not as large or as impressive as a forest fire, a brush fire can ruin your day just as fast.

Prepping for a fire outside the home is mostly common sense:

1) Be ready to leave on short notice.
Your Bug Out Bag is useful for more than just bad weather. Sometimes called INCH (I'm Not Coming Home) bags, you'll want to have what you need to keep going in case you don't have a home to come back to. Use the search box in the upper left-hand corner for our articles on the various types of bags.

2) Pay attention to local conditions.
The National Weather Service issues fire danger alerts when conditions are ripe for fires. Dry air and high winds are the main factors, so know your prevailing wind directions; around here the winds tend to come from the north in winter and south in the spring/summer. Weather rolls in from the south and west, so that's where we look for rain and lightning. 

Fire is a tool sometimes used to manage land. Prescribed burns on farmland, ditches, and hillsides are common practice as the fire removes built-up debris and kills a lot of weeds and pests. Farmers have been using reduced-tillage methods for decades, which means they don't plow the fields as often (or ever) and crop residue builds up over time. A common method of removing this residue (stalks, stems, and leaves) is to burn it by taking a tractor, hooking up a long chain to the rear, putting an old tire at the end of the chain, throwing a gallon of diesel fuel onto the tire, lighting it, then driving around the field so that the burning fuel and bits of molten tire ignite the residue. If the residue is dry enough, the fire will burn hot enough and long enough to destroy weed seeds and kill several types of pests that live in the top few inches of soil, which reduces the need for chemicals. The ashes from the fire will return nutrients to the soil faster than normal decomposition, too.

The smarter farmers will have tilled a fire break around their field first, but I've seen a lot of idiots in my life. Watch what your neighbors are doing, because some of them are going to be idiots. Call your local fire department on their non-emergency line if you have questions about burning anything outside; they'd much rather prevent a fire than respond to one.

3) Know your evacuation routes.
Have more than one way out of your area, preferably in different directions. If fire and smoke is blocking a road, know how to detour around it to get to your destination. 

Fires can spread faster than emergency responders can react, especially in rural areas, so don't wait for an evacuation order. If in doubt, leave.

4) Prep your home & land to avoid fires.
The NFPA (National Fire Prevention Association) does a lot of good work. They're the ones who write most of the electrical and building codes that prevent fires inside buildings, but they also have good suggestions for prepping the outside of your house. The short version of their advice is:

  • Homes catch fire from wind-borne embers or radiant heat
  • Clean your gutters and check your roof, eaves, and attic vents
  • Keep anything flammable at least 5' from your house. This includes trees, mulch, and shrubs.
  • Keep the yard clear of leaves, dead grass, branches, etc.
  • Proper spacing of trees prevents fire from spreading (wind breaks should be at least 100' from any building)
  • Clear dead vegetation from under fuel tanks and decks

Fire is a useful tool as long as it's under control. I've learned how to set back-fires and how to burn into the wind from professionals for the times we need to clear out ditches and pastures. It's hot, smoky, dirty work, but seeing the new grass sprouting through the ashes of several years' worth of built-up debris is worth it.

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