It's all about developing a firewise mindset, according to Mackenzie Helmandollar of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.
Helmandollar, who is currently working with four communities in the Christopher-Kohls Fire District to administer a fuels reduction grant program, showed what one homeowner is doing to give her home a better chance of surviving a fire.
"More than likely if you're in the direct path of a large fire, it will consume your house," Helmandollar said. "But over 30 percent of the homes lost in the Rodeo-Chediski Fire were not at the flame front; they were at the perimeter and they were ignited from ember storms."
The "model" home, in See Canyon, belongs to Jerri Glover, a pro-active woman who has the added benefit of having two grown sons who are builders. Glover has been working on her home and property for several years to give it a better chance of surviving a fire.
"She's taken lots of good steps that are pretty inexpensive and easy to do yourself," Helmandollar said. "It's still a work in progress, but she's made good progress."
Glover's wooded one-acre homesite was thinned, partly by Arizona Public Service when new power lines were installed, and partly by a Pinetop company that wanted to set up a demonstration project for her neighbors to see. APS took out 45 trees and Rob and Barbara Huft of Old Rim Wildland Tree Services removed 59.
Glover estimates about a third of the trees on her property were removed.
"The Hufts went through a wildland assessment class with Jerri and I at the Arizona Wildfire Academy," Helmandollar said. "They believe in what we're doing, so they donated the time to do this as a demonstration project."
Glover estimates the Hufts spent six or seven days on the project, which would have cost her $4,000.
"They did the assessment and we put white ribbon around the trees that we wanted to keep," Helmandollar said. "Rob marked trees that were hazard trees like overhanging the driveway, overhanging the eaves of the house.
"There were some high priority trees, and this is true on any homeowner's lot -- trees that are valuable and Jerri really wanted to keep. So he incorporated them into her structure."
There are still plenty of trees on Glover's property, but now they have some breathing room.
"Grass is really an indicator of forest health," Helmandollar said. "More sunlight and more moisture is hitting the ground and there's noticeably more grass than there was last year, and that will increase your wildflowers, your wildlife coming into the area.
"What they did here was to break up the continuous yield, break up the canopies so that none of the canopies touch; or if they do touch, they're in clumps."
A walk around Glover's house reveals the other improvements she has made, including, of course, a metal roof.
"She replaced the grass she had with flagstone so no embers will pile up and start the house on fire," Helmandollar said. "Any place that could be a heat trap she covered with metal and screening so embers can't come in and collect."
Metal can be painted to match your house, but Glover actually found some that was already painted forest green.
"I looked in the Yellow Pages for metal roofing, and I found Shreeve Roofing," she said. "I called and I said, ‘Do you guys have a bone pile?'"
They did, and the cost for what she needed was minimal. It just reinforces the fact that it doesn't have to cost a fortune to make your house safe, especially if you do it on an as-needed basis.
Lee Ann Beery of the Arizona State Land Department is helping Helmandollar with the coordination of the Christopher Creek grant. She explains:
"These firewise principles you can work into your regular home maintenance plan. Instead of just replacing regular shingles, think about doing a metal roof -- spending that little extra that may give your home the chance of survival.
"You just kind of roll those things into regular home maintenance once you learn those principles."
The stakes couldn't be higher.
"If the fire department can't get in there, your house is going to have to stand by itself, and it's not only going to have to withstand the flame front, but also the ember storm that's going to come with it," Helmandollar said.
The Christopher Creek area was the beneficiary of a $100,000 matching State Fire Assistance grant, with the Christopher-Kohls Fire Department contributing $25,000. Currently four communities in the area -- See Canyon, Kohl's Ranch, Christopher Creek and Colcord Estates -- have committed to the project, but organizers want to bring all nine communities and 13 homeowners associations in the area on board. They include Mountain Meadows, Hunter Ranch, Gordon Canyon, Ponderosa Springs, Tontozona, Tonto Rim Estates, Zane Grey Estates, Thirteen Ranch and R-Bar-C Scout Camp. For more information, call Janice Templeton at (928) 478-4359.
Survive a wildfire
Some other tips for increasing the chances of your house surviving a wildfire:
- Use synthetic deck boards instead of wood. They melt, but won't ignite.
- Install double-pane windows.
- Build a metal box for your skylight that can be bolted down. Most skylights are made of plastic and they can melt, allowing embers to get into your house.
- Avoid the buildup of needles and other flammable debris around your house.
- Woodpiles should be 30 feet from your house, more if there's a downslope to the house.
- Avoid landscaping with railroad ties and other wood products.
- Patio furniture should be fire-resistant too.