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A united front: Black Forest residents urged to view fire mitigation as civic duty

By Debbie Kelley Updated: March 30, 2014 at 10:39 am 0

Fire doesn't care about property lines or homeowners association boundaries.

Flames are indiscriminate. Equal opportunity, you might say.

That's why the Black Forest Fire/Rescue Protection District is attacking fire safety and mitigation in a different way this season.

Instead of only doing individual wildfire risk assessments for residents of Black Forest - a high-risk community with dense trees and plenty of low-lying fuel - the district is encouraging a unified front.

Six fire volunteers district conducted the first neighborhood evaluation Saturday for six adjacent properties in the Estates at Black Forest subdivision.

The neighborhood is south of the Black Forest fire area, which began burning June 11, 2013, and destroyed more than 14,000 acres and killed two people. But the neighborhood has some of the same land characteristics found in the burn area.

Last year, the fire district conducted 100 individual assessments. The idea this year, said Lt. Scott MacDonald, Black Forest Fire's community program coordinator, is to get neighbors to work with each other to mitigate the possibility of property damage or loss.

"We want to emphasize coming together as a community, where neighbors can provide mutual protection zones," he said. "If we do that, we can influence the behavior of the fire, to keep it off the crown and back on the surface, where we want to fight it."

Some of the 488 homeowners who lost their homes in the Black Forest fire complained that while they did their part to remove fuels and took other proactive steps to protect their homes, their neighbors did not. And they blamed the loss of their property on that fact.

One of the first things firefighters look at is whether a fire truck can fit through the driveway of a home, said Kathy Russell, spokeswoman for Black Forest Fire/Rescue. A fire truck is about as wide as a highway lane.

"If they can't get out, they won't go in," she said.

Other initial deterrents are overhead obstructions and juniper bushes or scrub oak encroaching the driveway, she said.

The crew analyzed residents' homes and pointed out how they could increase their property's chances of survival. At Larry Gombos' house, the crew saw positives and negatives.

Gombos and his wife, Irene, have lived there since 1997. They removed 650 trees from their 5-acre property in the first two years and another 51 recently, some that were close to the house. They also planted 500 saplings.

But the land could stand more tree thinning, MacDonald said - particularly in the 30- to 100-foot space from the house, where firefighters like to see 10 feet between the tops of tall trees to prevent crowning - the fire spreading from above.

A healthy forest has about 60 trees per acre, Russell said. But in Black Forest, it's not uncommon to find that many trees on a patch of land the size of a living room.

It's not about getting rid of every tree, though.

"We're not advocating clear-cutting and green concrete," MacDonald said.

A homeowner can leave a favorite tree near the house, for example, as long as it's not a threat. Keeping the lower branches trimmed and the surrounding area free of ignitable materials takes care of that.

Farther away from the home, trees can be left staggered, so that it's hardly noticeable they've been thinned.

Gombos also was encouraged to remove decorative driftwood from around his home, along with small bushes and combustible items such as patio furniture cushions, tarps and a barbecue.

"This is absolutely awesome," Gombos said. "There are so many things that never dawn on you that are a fire hazard."

For instance, to prevent embers from getting inside a home, the tops of wood-burning chimneys and bathroom vents should have a half-inch wire screen over them.

Simple changes, such as cleaning gutters of debris, stacking firewood away from the home and reducing the pine needle depth of the forest floor to 1 to 2 inches, can make a big difference, Russell said.

Resident Pete McCollum instigated the neighborhood assessment, which is the first step toward achieving designation under a national program as "Firewise Communities."

"What happened last year in the Forest was very scary," he said. "It seems kind of a no-brainer if you take steps in advance you have a better chance of your house surviving. We're not going to take it lying down."

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