As a wildfire burns, even if the walls of flame do not pose an immediate threat, embers floating in the wind can ignite homes miles away.
If the burning material enters the house through a vent or lands on roof debris, it can smolder until it eventually engulfs the house in flames — even if the original fire never touches the surrounding area.
Grant County Firewise Coordinator Irene Jerome said the biggest threat to homes is not what many people think.
“What we finally have figured out is it’s not the wall of flame,” she said. “The biggest home burner is embers.”
In addition to having defensible space around the home to prevent the walls of flame — and spot fires caused by embers — from encroaching on the house, owners must also think about the house itself.
Mark Howell, fire prevention officer for the Malheur National Forest’s Blue Mountain Ranger District, said a large fire can distribute embers three miles away. Uncovered vents and crawlspaces or gaps beneath decks allow the fire inside.
“Where can embers get in?” he said. “Any kind of hole you leave in your house is fair game.”
Howell said homeowners can take many steps to make their property less susceptible to fire: moving flammable material, such as bark mulch, woodpiles and debris, away from the home; covering openings with wire mesh; acquiring hoses and sprinklers for each outdoor spigot; landscaping prudently; and installing spark arresters on chimneys.
“The more defensible your home is, the easier, the safer it is for us,” Howell said. “We put our lives on the line every day. We mitigate as much risk as we can, and that’s what we ask people to do too.”
One way communities can learn more about fire prevention and steps to improve safety is through the Firewise program. Jerome said the informal, community-driven program implemented through the Oregon Department of Forestry provides assessments for communities that wish to participate and also offers resources for some of the work.
“The whole idea is for communities to be accountable,” she said.
Once the risk assessment is complete, the community decides if it is interested and creates a timeline and priorities. She said community members choose and implement the projects, and they can perform them over time. The program has few requirements and helps by raising awareness.
For communities that become designated as Firewise communities, she said some funding is available for vegetation management within 200 feet of a home. She said Firewise communities must also perform an annual community project.
Three Firewise communities have formed in Grant County — Pine Creek, Middle Fork and Ritter — and Jerome said others have expressed interest. She said the first in Eastern Oregon was Pine Creek in 2014, and the community survived the Canyon Creek Complex fire the following year. She hoped other communities would form as well.
“Now is the time to do it,” she said. “You don’t want to wait until the fire comes.”
10 safety tips to protect homes from wildfire
1. Clear leaves and other debris from roofs, gutters, porches and decks. This helps prevent embers from igniting your home.
2. Remove dead vegetation and other items from under your deck or porch, and within 10 feet of the house.
3. Screen in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
4. Remove flammable materials (wood piles, propane tanks) within 30 feet of a home’s foundation and outbuildings, including garages and sheds. If it can catch fire, don’t let it touch a house, deck or porch.
5. Wildfire can spread to tree tops. Prune trees so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet from the ground.
6. Keep your lawn hydrated and maintained. If it is brown, cut it down to reduce fire intensity. Dry grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire.
7. Don’t let debris and lawn cuttings linger. Dispose of these items quickly to reduce fuel for fire.
8. Inspect shingles or roof tiles. Replace or repair the shingles that are loose or missing to prevent ember penetration.
9. Cover exterior attic vents with metal wire mesh no larger than 1/8 inch to prevent sparks from entering the home.
10. Enclose eaves and screen soffit vents using 1/8 mesh metal screening to prevent ember entry.
Additional information and materials are available at firewise.org.