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Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2019 Vol. 66 No. 3

The time is now to work on wild land fire prevention

There are a number of measures local farmers and ranchers can take to lessen the chances of a wild land fire occurring on their land or even to lessen the effects if one does ignite. They can also help reduce the chances of damage occurring to their homes and other structures. "Our farmers and ranchers out here in the county are pretty good at taking steps to prevent wild land fires," points out Ballinger fire department lieutenant Robert Langston. Langston and Ballinger fire department assistant chief Brent Allen have responded to dozens of fires over their careers. Allen has been on the department for 30-years and Langston recently celebrated 20-years along with being named the 2018 Fire Fighter of the Year.

The central west Texas area has suffered devastating fires over the years, including the Wildcat fire in 2011, which charred the central west Texas landscape as far as the eye could see. That fire ignited just after midnight on April 11thdue to a lightning strike in southern Coke County, west of Robert Lee. At one point the flame front was estimated to be burning at the incredible rate of 400 feet per minute. Shifting winds pushed the fire around and helped it spread quickly. The area was dry due to a lengthy drought and everything in the area provided fuel for the inferno. It burned 159,308 acres, approximately 154 square miles. Bastrop also endured a blaze that scorched 1,645 homes and 34,068 acres, making it the most destructive fire in Texas history. That year the Texas record was set for land destroyed by wild land fires with 31,453 fires burning over 4,000,000 acres of land.

Line holding with hose

Photo courtesy of: Texas Parks & Wildlife

The long-range prediction per NOAA is that below-normal levels of precipitation are expected in the spring. Depending on the amount of dead fuel (limbs, brush, grass, etc.) on the ground it is possible for a fire to start right after a recent rain for "one hour fuels". The shorter the time lag, the more responsive the fuel is to changing weather conditions. For Example 1-hour fuels only take on the order of one hour to respond to changing weather conditions. Fuels range from 1-hour fuel to 10 hours, 100 hours and 1000 hours.

Langston says that prescribed burns can help prevent uncontrolled wild land fires, "The prescribed burns are important. They clear out a lot of the fuel that fires would need in a wild land fire." Most burns are conducted mid to late spring, or in the fall. Burning to favor desired grasses should take place just as they are starting to green up, and the soil surface is damp. In winter the weather typically has low humidity and the dead vegetation can quickly ignite and get out of control, which is why most are done in the fall, before everything dries up or in the spring, as everything is turning green. High humidity can keep prescribed burns moving slowly so that they are more effective. A slow-moving burn will burn deeper and more completely, removing the fuel for wild fires.

Taking measures now to prevent wild land fires during our typically dry summer begin now. Langston offers several tips, not only for landowners but also for homeowners as Bastrop proved that any home was susceptible to a wild land fire:

Top things landowners in the county can do to help mitigate the effects of wildfires.

  1. Take Away the Tinder - During the wildfire season, be sure to regularly sweep away fire-happy materials such as dried leaves and pine needles around your property.
  2. Create 'Fuel Breaks' On Your Property - Fuel breaks, such as gravel pathways or driveways, can act as a barrier to keep fire away from your property. An easy way to add a fuel break is by replacing wood chips or dried grass that is frequently used as pathways and instead use gravel or another fire-resistant material. Keep fence lines cleared of any and all growth and try and have a dirt break created by a dozer or road grader of at least two passes. Keep this area sprayed to keep down any kind of vegetation growth.
  3. Decorate With Safety in Mind - Use fireproof or fire-resistant materials whenever you can. Here is a short list of some fireproof and fire-resistant materials to consider: Stone, concrete, treated limber plywood, mineral wool, potassium silicate, metal or flame-retardant roofing. These materials might not be as elegant as real wood, but they'll help keep you safer in the face of danger.
  4. Controlled Fires - Fire doesn't have to be your enemy. Controlled fires are frequently used by forest management to get rid of underbrush to give budding plants more room and nutrients. Controlled fires are frequently used on properties with pine trees, as pine trees are resistant to fire. By using controlled fires to burn away the debris, there will be less fuel for any potential wildfires to feed on. This will significantly reduce the damage to your land.
  5. Trim Your Trees - Dead or low-hanging branches are the most venerable to wildfires. Be sure to always trim these branches, especially the trees near your house or farm. Then make sure to remove what you trim from the property.
  6. Keep debris and clutter picked up. Most of the time stacks of flammable materials tend to stack up next to structures. Examples such as firewood, pallets, small to medium propane tanks for BBQ pits, and general miscellaneous debris.
  7. For those that use propane tanks for homes these need to have a zero percent tolerance for debris, vegetation, etc. Use rocks or other FR materials to create a safe zone around these tanks and keep these areas sprayed to limit vegetation growth.
  8. For those in areas that are allowed that can do and are permitted to do controlled burns always call your county Dispatch to let them know you will be burning and the location and time that you will be burning.

Top things homeowners can do to the exterior and interior of their yards and homes to mitigate the effects of fire and focus on life safety.

  1. Test your smoke alarms. Properly maintain your smoke alarms by testing the batteries once a month. If they're not working, replace them immediately.
  2. Inspect heating sources. Regardless of what kind of primary heating you have in your home, an annual inspection will reduce your risk of fire.
  3. Kitchen fire

    Per the NFPA, kitchen Fires account for 49% of all home fires. Photo courtesy of McKinney Fire Dept.

  4. Use caution with space heaters. Many houses, especially old ones, have cold spots that central heating simply won't reach—which makes plug-in space heaters a godsend. Unfortunately, these heat devices are the leading cause of house fires in the winter. We're not telling you not to use them; just be sure to respect these rules. Make sure your heater is at least 3 feet away from anything flammable; plug your heater directly into the outlet rather than an extension cord; and although it may be tempting, do not go to bed with the space heater on.
  5. Change filters regularly to avoid build-up of dust and lint that can easily catch fire. If you use space heaters, carefully inspect them before and after each use and place them at least three feet away from anything combustible.
  6. Keep the stove and oven clear. Don't leave anything flammable near the stove or oven. Make sure curtains don't hang over the stove, and never rest towels or a cookbook on the stove.
  7. Stay in the kitchen. Don't leave a hot cooking surface unattended. Whether it's a pot on the stove or an electric griddle, you need to be close by. If you have to leave the room, take the pot off the stove or turn off the griddle first. People tend to forget or get distracted once they leave the kitchen.
  8. Check the dryer. If you have a gas-powered dryer, have it inspected once a year to make sure all connections are secure. No matter what type of dryer you have, always clean out the lint trap after a load is finished. Regularly check behind and around the dryer for pockets of lint or items of laundry that have fallen under or behind.
  9. Maintain cords. Regularly check the condition of cords and watch out for frayed wires: repair or replace cords with frayed wires immediately. Electrical cords can produce heat so don't trap them under a rug or between furniture and the wall. We've all done it: We want the electric kettle, laptop, cell phone charger, and toaster to run from the same power outlet—so we add an extension cord or adapter to accommodate all of our appliances. Yet every year, overloaded or damaged circuits cause 3,300 fires. Make sure you're not one of them by, for starters, giving your cords a feel: If they're warm, they're overloaded. Also, never run extension cords under rugs, tape them to floors, staple/nail them to walls, or string several together to make an extra-large extension cord.
  10. Store flammable products properly. Many household cleaners and cosmetic products like shaving cream and hair spray are flammable. Keep flammable products away from heat, including exposure to sunlight. Designate a cool, dark cupboard for flammable products and make sure all family members know where they go.
  11. Be careful with candles. Never leave candles unattended and always keep them away from flammable items like blankets and curtains. Place candles in secure, tip-proof holders and extinguish them before leaving or going to sleep.
  12. Use the fireplace responsibly. To keep errant sparks from escaping, install a durable metal fire screen in front of your fireplace. Don't leave a fire unattended, and give ashes ample time to cool down before disposing of them. Always place fireplace ash in a dedicated metal container that isn't used for any other household refuse.
  13. Keep fire extinguishers handy. Stock key areas of your home with fire extinguishers: At the very least, keep one in the kitchen and others near high-risk areas like a fireplace. Regularly review the instructions and make sure all members of the home know how to properly use the extinguisher.
  14. Plan an escape route. We're not just talking about walking out the front door. What if the route is blocked? Create and practice an effective plan that allows everyone to safely escape as quickly as possible. Have a meeting point. Sleep with bedroom doors closed. Create and practice a fire safety plan. Make sure there are two ways to get out of each room. Make sure windows are not stuck, screens can be removed, and security bars can be opened from the inside. Practice feeling your way out of the house with your eyes closed in case the lights are out during the fire.
  15. Heat lamps work as advertised, pumping out heat as long as they're on with no regard for combustibles. The following will help to reduce the hazards posed by heat lamps for pets and livestock: Use UL-listed heat lamps and follow manufacturer's instructions. Heat lamps with guards may provide some protection if the lamp fall into combustible bedding. Ensure heat lamps are installed in locations where they are far enough from any combustibles to preclude ignition. Remember that wooden construction elements will eventually dry out and ignite from a heat lamp too. Ensure the installation is secure and the light cannot be knocked down. Run cords in locations where animals cannot reach them. Make sure electrical circuits are not overloaded. Heat lamps use more amperage than regular lights. Keep all combustibles away from heat lamps and ensure kids doing chores are aware of the hazards. Check the lamp and mounting periodically to ensure it is secure. If you've got concerns about your heat lamp, stop and check it out. That few minutes may save your pets, your livestock, your barn, or even your home.
  16. Keep things tidy. Many dangers can coincide with the household disorder. One major concern is the danger of fire hazards. A home will not spontaneously combust, but flammable objects, obstructed electrical sources, chemicals, and other hazards could put a home at risk for a flaming end. Not only can a chaotic mess in the home be the cause of a fire, the objects can actually impair any efforts to put the fire out or for evasion. The homeowner may be at risk and have difficulty escaping a home. Walking through the home on a normal basis may seem manageable, but during a fire it will not be so easy. The home will be dark due to the smoke, so visibility will be limited. Without the ability to see, the residents will be unable to properly maneuver around obstacles and escape. If a fire suddenly occurs in the middle of the night when the residents are asleep, the individuals will be quickly forced into consciousness and must hastily take action, which will be difficult with dark, suffocating conditions. Not only will visibility be compromised, but maneuverability will be too. An excessive amount of possessions runs the risk of collapsing at any given point in time. With the addition of flames eating away at support, objects may fall and obstruct any available pathways or even fall on top of and injure people. Flammable objects can also add to the flaming maze and trap individuals. Firefighters are here to help, but these brave men and women cannot properly come to the aid of the distressed if there are complications holding them back. The household clutter can block the residents from exiting and can also block the firefighters from entering a home. The delay will take precious time away from their efforts to save the victims; time that could be the difference between life and death. If firefighters are able to eventually make it into the home, their lives are now at risk. Being a firefighter is a dangerous career as is and does not need other factors to add to the danger. While in the unfamiliar environment, the smoke also blinds the firefighters and piles of objects make it difficult to progress through the residence. In addition to possible falling objects, the structure of the home itself is at risk for deterioration, as clutter could have initially weakened the structure that the flames are finishing off. Don't let your home be a fire hazard. Minimize household clutter, and maintain open escape routes. Discard of unnecessary paper, materials such as old mail, newspapers, magazines, and anything else that is no longer needed. Ensure outlets and cooking areas are free of obstructing, flammable objects. If a hoarder is residing in the household, it is important to alert firefighters so they are aware of the situation before it becomes a life-threatening one.
  17. Pet-proof the home. Make sure that pets are not able to turn on any electronics while you are away. Keep new dogs and puppies in crates while you are sleeping or out of the house. Keep new cats in a small room when you are not home. Keep all exotic animals, including birds, ferrets, turtles, hamsters, guinea pigs, etc. in cages when you are not home. Also keep them supervised when they are out of their cages. Keep any pets that have a habit of chewing away from electrical appliances, cords, and wiring. Always scold pets if they are urinating or chewing on any electrical or flammable materials. Remove all stove handles at waist-level to prevent pets from accidentally turning them on while you are not home. Notify the firefighters that you have pets in your home and how many by placing a sticker on your front window. Keep a leash by the door for easy access in an emergency situation. Train your pets to come to you when called.
  18. Prevent fires outside. In the fall season, keep all piles of leaves away from the home after raking. Always clean the grill before and after using it. Consider using non-flammable pads on wooden decks with grills to keep sparks and burning wood from starting a fire. Always turn off the propane and grill if you have to leave it. Keep lawn clippings and bush trimmings away from the home because they can retain heat when fermenting. Store gasoline in an approved container away from the home, never in the garage.
  19. What to Do in the Case of a Fire. Indeed there are many ways fires can be prevented, but accidents can still happen, even when you are not home. But as soon as find any sign of a fire in your home, make sure to take the following steps:
    • Evacuate everyone in the home immediately.
    • Call 911 which will page out the fire department right away after finding your house on fire
    • Call your insurance company.
    • Call a fire damage restoration company.
    • Consult with the fire department before going back inside or reusing your appliances.
    • Create an inventory of damaged items and property.
    • Locate high-value items and records. If any were damaged, such as any birth certificates, social security cards, passports, pet documents, or jewelry, contact the government or manufacturer for replacements.
    • Notify your mortgage company or landlord of the fire.

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