As the flowers start blooming and days get warmer, it means fire danger increases. Living alongside the wilderness in a region where fire is part of the landscape, spring is an important time for residents to get prepared for wildfire.
Each spring, re-evaluating defensible space and home hardening techniques is part of life in the basin. While it’s important to focus on the vegetation around the home, it’s also key to reduce the risk from the infrastructure as both play important roles in protecting property.
Several fire scientists and agencies from both California and Nevada collaborated to produce a step-by-step 20-page guide for homeowners to retrofit their homes to be more suited, resilient and less vulnerable to ignition from wildfire. It’s called the Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide which was funded primarily by Cal Fire.
Outreach Specialist for Tahoe Living with Fire and contributor to the guide, Amanda Milici, said that since the release of the guide the community has been interested.
“We have received a lot of community feedback, along with questions on the guide and how to get it,” she said.
Following the release, Tahoe Living with Fire created several workshops for residents, the public and building professionals on how to retrofit their properties.
Milici said that during those virtual workshops, they had nearly 600 attendees.
“It is empowering for people to look at their home and see what they can do to protect it from wildfire,” she said. “Spring is a critical time to get ahead of the curve, but many projects are year-round and take a planning effort.”
With fire being part of the landscape in Lake Tahoe, it’s imperative for residents to take the initiative to prepare their homes.
“We are used to having a lot of fire around here and should expect even more in the future,” said Cristina Restaino, director of the Living With Fire Program and assistant professor of natural resources at the University of Nevada, Reno extension and co-author of the Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide. “Living with fire in this type of environment requires adaptation.”
During the workshop, Restaino explained that structures are also considered fuel and they increase the fire risk in communities that are part of a wildland urban interface.
While it’s important for residents to do the work needed to prepare their homes, it is even more effective when neighbors work together to create defensible space, hardening of the home and even become a certified Firewise community.
On March 31, the Al Tahoe community in South Lake Tahoe was nationally recognized as a Firewise certified community.
The Al Tahoe community completed a risk assessment of the homes and lots in the community, developed an action plan to address identified risks, and demonstrated education outreach in vegetation removal, with the support of South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue and Douglas County Fire District Zephyr Crew during their two day Clean-up Day event held last year.
Firewise USA, a program that provides the framework for residents to ensure their homes are protected as much as possible from wildfire, even offers incentives to homeowners such as insurance credits.
Living in this environment, the term defensible space has become integrated throughout the community.
Defensible space is the area that is between an oncoming wildfire and the home. This space should be void of any unmanaged vegetation.
Having defensible space allows firefighters to safely defend the structure and increases the likelihood of the house surviving even without assistance of firefighters.
“Defensible space is very important and it allows your house to potentially withstand a wildfire. It also gives us the ability to stay at your home and protect it,” said Lake Valley Fire Protection District Battalion Chief and Fire Marshall Chad Stephen. “It is important to take care of your house, but it is just as important for a community to work together to avoid a disaster.”
Stephen recommends that as soon as the snow melts, it’s a good time to start the process of ridding winter accumulation and cleaning up the residence.
“Whether you live in Lake Tahoe or are a visitor, we all appreciate the natural beauty of the lake, and it is all our responsibility to keep it beautiful,” said Tia Rancourt, public information officer for NLTFPD. “It’s always working together that provides for the best result.”
Flammable materials including fire wood must be removed from areas beneath decks and roof overhangs. Inspecting and replacing (attic and underfloor) ventilation removing accumulation from screens is also critical.
“Something people can do easily in the spring is raking their pine needles and cleaning their gutters and roofs along with cleaning under their decks,” said NLTFPD Interim Fire Marshall Jennifer Donohue.
When it comes to defensible space, there are three zones that surround the structure; the 0-5 foot Non-combustible Zone, 5-30 foot Lean Clean and Green Zone, and the 30-100 foot Fuels Reduction Zone. This zone can be extended on steep slopes and larger properties.
Creating a non-combustible zone 0-5 feet from the home includes keeping it clean from stacked firewood, debris, lumber, fallen needles, and shrubs.
In this zone it is imperative to have absolutely nothing flammable and is recommended to consider “hardscaping” with rocks.
It is recommended to refrain from using bark, wood mulches or landscape timbers or board, instead use herbaceous, deciduous plants or lawn, clover or flowers which are more suited for the basin’s landscape.
Also, it’s important to keep the property clean and free of needles and leaves within 5-30 feet of the home by the first of May every year.
Creating space between shrubs and trees is another huge component of creating good defensible space. Paths or terraces are useful in breaking up vegetated areas.
Another part of defensible space is ladder fuels and as the name suggests, ladder fuels are smaller vegetation such as shrubs or small trees that essentially act as a ladder to bigger and older trees.
Removing shrubs and small trees from around bigger trees will eliminate ladder fuels and the ability for fire to move from the ground into the upper canopy.
Low hanging branches should also be removed up to one-third of the tree’s overall height especially in the reduced fuel zone which is 30-100 feet from the home.
While defensible space might seem like a task, it could be the determining factor if a home survives a wildfire and it also helps to keep firefighters safe.
“If a wildfire were to occur, it reduces the flame length and the intensity of the fire which allows firefighters to go in there and do their job in a safer environment,” said Ryan Dominguez, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District’s fuels prevention specialist. “It gives your house and the structures around your area a better chance at surviving.”
Before serving as the fuels prevention specialist, Dominguez was a firefighter on a wildland handcrew where he was sent on several fires that were in wildland urban interface areas including the Caughlin Ranch Fire in Reno and the Angora Fire in the basin.
“A lot of structures burnt down during those events but some of them survived, and that had a lot had to do with the fact that they had good defensible space. A home with defensible space will need little assistance from firefighters, and in some cases firefighters can do limited fuels reduction work to further safeguard a home. Homes with poor defensible space become increasingly challenging to defend,” said Dominguez. “It is really rewarding as a firefighter to go back in and look at some of the houses that survived. Defensible space does wonders when it comes to those types of fires.”
Most of the fire districts in the basin offer free defensible space inspections including NLTFPD.
Each consultation lasts about 30 to 45 minutes and inspectors help homeowners learn how they can prepare their homes. They also offer a chipping program that starts at the end of May for residents. NLTFPD works closely with IVGID for their Green Waste Program.
Dominguez says that inspectors can also help with tree permits for trees that potentially pose a fire risk.
Last year, NLTFPD conducted nearly 1,000 inspections in their district and Dominguez said that about 200-300 of those homes were compliant.
“Folks are seeing the fire danger and how it is increasing and they are starting to cooperate with these codes and guidelines — a lot of it has to do with the major fires that have burnt homes in California.”
Dominguez says that he’s seen more and more residents in the community coming together to establish more fire adapted communities in the basin.
NLTFPD is part of The Tahoe Network of Fire Adapted Communities, which is designed to help both residents and visitors prepare for wildfire through community collaboration.
According to the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, a fire adapted community is a community located in a fire prone area that requires little assistance from firefighters during a wildfire and the residents of these communities accept responsibilities for living in a high hazard area and they possess the knowledge and skills to prepare their homes for wildfire season.
“One person’s defensible space affects the ability of home survival for the neighborhood, as one home on fire threatens many others,” said April Shackelford, forester for NLTFPD. “Do it for yourself, and do it for your neighbors and community as well.”
The resulting reduction in wildfire intensity increases the chances of neighborhood survival.
Due to the influx of new residents in the basin since the pandemic, Rancourt says it’s imperative that people who may have not lived in a wildland urban interface before, educate themselves on what it means to live in an area that is susceptible to wildfire.
“Defensible Space is something that everyone can do, starting with raking up your pine needles and requesting a defensible space inspection for your home. Contact your local fire district as to what services they offer and do your part,” said Rancourt.
To learn more about retrofitting your home for wildfire in the basin and additional resources, visit tahoelivingwithfire.com.
Dominguez was featured in the video about defensible space and hardening the home here.
For defensible space inspections and chipping services, contact your local fire district.
From 6 -7:30 on April 7, residents are invited to join a free virtual workshop to learn about landscaping to reduce the wildfire threat. Hosted by the Living With Fire and Tahoe Living With Fire programs, with support from University of Nevada Reno, Extension. Register at http://bit.ly/FirewiseLandscaping.
Planning routine maintenance is a good place to start.
Remove combustible items such as firewood from underneath, on, or next to your deck.
Remove debris (pine needles, leaves or twigs) from your 5 foot non-combustible zone.
Remove debris (pine needles, leaves or twigs) from your roof, gutters, chimneys, and skylights.
Move combustible items (newspapers, photos, cardboard boxes) away from vents in attics and crawl spaces.
Replace 1/4-inch mesh screening with 1/8-inch noncombustible metal mesh screening on all vents.
Replace combustible landscaping such as manzanita or wood and rubber mulches with fire-resistant landscaping such as herbaceous plants or rocks, or gravel.
Install a noncombustible and corrosion-resistant metal drip edge to provide protection for the combustible components (i.e., sheathing and fascia) at the edge of your roof.
Use a noncombustible gutter cover to minimize accumulation of debris in the gutter.
Some gutter covers result in accumulation of debris on the roof behind the gutter, so these will still require routine maintenance.
Wildfire Home Retrofits
If you have the time and budget, consider planning more involved projects that prepare your home’s exterior for wildfire. Keep in mind some of these projects may require the help of a building professional.
Replace a wood shake or shingle roof with a Class A roof.
Class A roofing materials include asphalt fiberglass composition shingles, clay and cementitious tiles (both flat and barrel shaped), and some metal roofing materials.
Inspect open-eave areas for gaps where embers could lodge or pass through into the attic. All vents should be screened and all other gaps should be filled with durable caulk.
Enclose under-eave area to create a soffited eave.
Use noncombustible siding (e.g., stucco, steel and fiber cement), especially when neighboring homes are within 30-feet of the home.
In smaller areas that are vulnerable, such as at a roof-to-wall area, replace siding with a noncombustible product.
When replacing windows, choose multi-pane options containing tempered glass.
If neighbors or outbuildings are within 30-feet of the home, consider installing deployable noncombustible shutters to provide additional protection.