Plan, act to protect your home from wildland fire

Forest trimming and thinning
Fire season has already begun in Washington. Thinning can reduce forest density, increasing distance between tree crowns to reduce spread of crown fire, and increasing stand resilience to insects, fire, drought, and other stressors.

With fire season already beginning in parts of Washington, WSU Extension Forestry experts say it’s never too late to take steps to protect your home and forests.

Extension educators train landowners to safeguard their property by minimizing fuels in the forest and eliminating combustibles in the vicinity of the home. These methods can substantially lower risks from all but the most intense fires.

Prepare zones of defense

Prioritize the first 40 feet around your home, advises Sean Alexander, WSU Extension’s Northeast Washington Forester. He and fellow Extension foresters follow the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA guidelines, instructing homeowners to defend the home ignition zones, a triple set of boundaries that include the first five feet out from your home’s exterior walls; the next 30 feet; and the extended landscape beyond.

In the immediate zone, reduce anything that can easily catch on fire, advises WSU Extension Forestry Team Leader Andy Perleberg.

“Get rid of debris in your gutters, dry grass around the base of your house, and check unscreened vents, eaves, and places where embers can blow in,” he said. “You can greatly improve your chances of saving your home if you take care of the little things.”

When fire approaches, wet everything down, especially anything made of wood, such as shake roofs and wooden decks.  Wood siding can take a lot of heat for a limited time, but buildings have other weak points.

“So long as flames are 30 feet or more away, and that wall of heat is only sustained for a short time, your house can make it,” he said. “But those little pieces of dry vegetation, including bushes like arborvitae, are enough to start a house fire.”

Homeowners should strategically thin and prune to protect buildings, roads, driveways, and access routes.

“Thinning trees back from your road, and pruning the branches up and back will help firefighters approach your home safely,” Perleberg said.

Prescribed fire
Timothy Fitzgibbons, restoration ecologist and graduate student in the School of the Environment, working on a prescribed fire in Latah County, Idaho.

Reduce forest fuels

In the forest, landowners can trim and remove undergrowth and ‘ladder fuels’—branches and bushes that allow flames to climb into the canopy of trees, creating intense fires.

The best time of year to remove fuels is in fall and winter, when you can safely burn. Timber slash left on the ground in spring and summer offers potential habitat to tree-killing beetles, which increase the danger of fire. During warmer months, landowners can chip leftover woody materials, or bag them in plastic, which heats up the slash, killing beetles.

Prescribed fire, conducted under the right conditions, can reduce fuels, renew growth in understory vegetation, and increase forest health.

For western Washington residents, Extension Forester Patrick Shults advises fire exclusion by preparing the Firewise home ignition zones, and also being aware when conditions are dry, with a dangerous east wind.

“Make an evacuation plan in the event of fire,” he urges.

Fuel reduction in forests doesn’t typically apply west of the Cascades: “You should reduce fuels around your home,” Shults says, “but in broad scale forest management, it’s not applicable, and would change the ecology of the forest. These are naturally brushy, fuel-laden forests.”

Sean Alexander
Sean Alexander, WSU Northeast Washington Extension Forester

Educating landowners about fire

Extension educators hold regular forest stewardship and health short courses that include information on fire and preparedness.

This past March, Extension foresters hosted their first Wildfire 101: Mitigation and Planning course via Zoom. It’s the first of a series of comprehensive education courses on fire.

This summer, WSU will offer education on fire ecology, indigenous burning, prescribed fires, wildlife, and how make a resilient landscape.

“We started preparation prior to fire season, so landowners are ready to go,” Alexander said. “When discussing fire ecology and how it historically took place in eastern Washington, I want people to learn about it while fire is happening, so that they make the connection.

“We’ll talk about reforestation and recovery, and what happens if your land or home burn,” he added. “I want owners to understand how fire operates, how it is changing, and how to protect their homes and forests.”