Can This House Be Saved?

Firefighters learn to evaluate forest fire danger to homes

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A fire has been reported and you can see the smoke from your deck. Sirens fill the air and officials are telling you to evacuate the area. A brush fire is threatening your neighborhood.

Is your home ready to survive?
This is a question the Forest Service and local fire departments want you to ask yourself before imminent danger burns a path to your door.

And Rim country firefighters tried to find some answers to that question over the weekend in a training exercise held in Pine Creek Canyon.

Firefighters from the Forest Service and local fire departments joined to learn the most effective way to fight a wildfire that involves "urban interface" -- where homes are built in the forest. More than 20 trainees gathered at the Pine-Strawberry Fire Station on Hardscrabble Road in Pine to learn to evaluate a home and neighborhood.

Four instructors led by Dan Eckstein, the assistant fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District, taught firefighters how to determine if a home is able to be saved -- or whether it would be hopeless to try. Trainees were sent into a Pine subdivision and asked to evaluate the homes they encountered and place them in one of three categories.

If the home is prepared, there is a chance it can survive, instructors agreed. Most homes were in category two -- which means they are savable, with some effort. This depended on the time available before the fire reached the home versus the time needed to do the work. The more work a homeowner does now, the less work firefighters will have to do as a fire approaches.

What homeowners can do
Firefighters will be most concerned with what they can protect in a small window of time. But, before that time arrives, the most important thing for residents to know is how to best keep their home out of the hopeless category, said P-S Fire Marshal John Varljen.

He said key things homeowners can do include:

  • Build with fire-resistant materials;
  • Keep the roof and gutters clear of all debris;
  • Keep the chimney clean; and
    • Store firewood away from your home.

But while most homeowners are doing these basics, the biggest threat is the shrubs, brush and what is often thought of as natural landscaping.

Eckstein recommends creating a fuel break of a least 30 feet around your home. The steeper the slope, the wider the break.

He advises homeowners to rake up all fallen pine needles and leaves, clear and thin manzanita, clear the areas around large trees and trim the limbs up to a height of 15 feet.

Dude Fire lessons
Residents of Bonita Creek suffered the consequences of not planning ahead when their subdivision was largely destroyed in the 1990 Dude Fire.

In fact many, like Jim Sumpter, did not believe that the fire would get to them.

"I didn't think it was very serious," Sumpter said of the early stages of the Dude Fire, which eventually burned more than 25,000 acres. "The fire started five miles away from us." But in the dark of night, as the Dude fire cast its eerie light, he and his neighbors were evacuated.

Some, like Sumpter, left thinking it was only a precaution, that the fire would not reach their homes.

Sumpter lost his 100-year-old home. In all, 47 homes burned in that subdivision. Five more were damaged and only six remained standing, according to Forest Service records.

Six firefighters lost their lives, notably trying to save the Bonita Creek area, said Pat Velasco, fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District.

Learning from that fire and others around the country, the Forest Service course teaches firefighters the guidelines to determine what they can safely defend.

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