Responsible Country Living with Jim Armstrong


On July 10, 2008, fire struck the Park Hills and Park Meadows housing developments in the Dishman Hills on the south edge of the Spokane Valley. Fortunately no injuries or deaths occurred during the fire, but the effects of that fire on the residents, their homes and properties will be felt for years to come. The fire burned over 1100 acres and destroyed 13 homes. At one point, over 450 firefighters were on the scene. Every year, from Alaska to Florida, thousands of homes are destroyed by wildfire. What happened last year in California is a perfect example of the devastation created by wildfire. Homes are destroyed, lives are shattered or lost and landscapes are changed forever.

There are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of losing a home to wildfire.  Establishing defensible space around a home doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive to be effective. Firewise is a very effective national program designed to assist landowners and communities prepare for wildfire and establish defensible space around homes, neighborhoods and entire communities. 

The Firewise program defines ignition zones around the home. Starting right at the edge of the home out to 30’ is called Zone 1 and should receive the most attention. Anything burning in Zone 1 increases the possibility of the home burning as well. Anything directly adjacent to the home such as a garage, decks and even fences are also possible points of ignition. Inside of Zone 1 all plant materials should be green and not touching the building. Firewood should never be stacked next to the house or garage or under a deck. Lumber or other flammable materials like pine needles, leaves and other woody debris should be eliminated within this zone. Now imagine the hottest day of the summer and someone is walking around the outside of your home lighting matches. Where are the possible points of ignition and is there anything that would burn and carry the fire to the house? Are there trees close to the house with limbs and branches overhanging the house or even touching it? Are the gutters clean or full of leaves and needles? Air-borne embers from a fire not even on your property can easily ignite a fire on a roof.  Light, “flash fuels” like grasses and small shrubs will burn quickly without generating a lot of heat. A fire burning in those fuels will probably not cause a home to burn without igniting heavier fuels first. Larger fuels like trees and even logs on the ground take much longer to get burning, but once ignited, will burn very hot, super heating flammable materials in the path of the fire.   

Treatments in the zones further from the house would include pruning limbs and tree branches up 6-10 feet above the ground so a ground fire cannot use those limbs as ladder fuels to get into the tops of the trees. Once a fire is in the forest canopy, only good luck and lots of defensible space around a home will keep it from burning. Hazard fuels reduction is a highly recommended treatment, thinning out heavily stocked stands of timber, in the Spokane area usually a spacing of 12’ or more in Ponderosa pines.

One of the many reasons people choose to live in rural wooded areas is because they like the quiet and solitude and the aesthetics of being surrounded by the forest. But that which they love can also be the cause of losing their home. As anyone who has ever been through the terrifying experience of a wildfire will tell you; it is not a matter of if the fire will come, it is a matter of when. Will you be ready? Do you have defensible space around your home? Can fire vehicles get in on your road? Is your address clearly marked?

Having a Firewise risk assessment done and implementing the recommendations is no guarantee that a home would not be lost or damaged in a wildfire. The fuels, terrain, weather and availability of fire suppression assistance are all factors that could work against a homeowner. But the Firewise program teaches us to plan for the worst case scenario; a hot day with winds driving a fire up the hill toward your home. Establishing adequate defensible space around your home is the very best action you could take to reduce the risk of losing that home. For a Free Firewise Risk Assessment, contact the Spokane Conservation District at 509-535-7274 soon. The best time to be Firewise is before the next fire starts…

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Jim Armstrong

After retiring from the Spokane Conservation District in 2014, Jim Armstrong returned to work part-time for the District, working on special projects. He and his wife still live on their farm along with sheep, chickens, and dogs, with kids and grandkids frequent visitors!