The recent spate of brush fires caused a scare, or at least some anxious moments, for many a Rappahannock County resident
Dry leaves and grass, high winds and low humidity combined to leave the county vulnerable. No structures were lost nor were there injuries.
There are some things homeowners can do to protect their property. I took a ride this week with Joe Rossetti, area forester in the state Department of Forestry for Rappahannock and Fauquier counties. We drove down roads and up and down hills dotted with homes around Flint Hill, the area most threatened by the most recent brush fire in Shenandoah National Park, looking for examples of the things that can help feed a fire and endanger property and lives.
We dropped by the home of Karen Beck-Herzog on Bean Hollow Road. She’s the public affairs officer for Shenandoah National Park, to which had spread the wildfire two weekends ago that fire officials said started on private property in Warren County.
Beck-Herzog said she went home that weekend to gather up some personal effects in the event the home was engulfed. As it turns out, she said the fire didn’t get closer than two miles away.
But having worked for the park service and lived out West, she’s realistic about the danger from fire.
“When you live in the woods there’s an inherent risk,” she said.
We visited with Ralph and Gwen Bates on Bear Wallow Road. They’ve lived in a modular home on five acres they bought five years ago. They’re big on solar power, energy efficiency, and environmentally sound land use practices.
To “keep it as wild as possible I’ve used as many native plants as I could” and reduced invasive plants, Gwen Bates said
“I mow the lawn, as much as I hate to do it,” said her husband. “Short grass doesn’t burn as fast as tall grass.”
They had help from the DOF in developing a land management plan — not so much to reduce fire risk as to promote the growth of such things as warm-weather grasses that provide cover for wildlife. They’ve employed controlled burns that rid the ground of dead material and provide space for the desired growth.
“Doing it regularly keeps the woody plants away,” Rossetti explained.
During our travels, Rossetti and I stopped outside several homes and he talked about features that made them either more or less vulnerable to a fire.
We looked to see if the road or drive leading up to the house was wide enough — at least 12 feet is best — for a fire truck to navigate. If it had a circular drive or another point of ingress and egress farther on, even better. At least 14 feet of overhead clearance so that a rescue truck doesn’t get hung up on tree limbs is desired.
Metal roofs don’t provide a source of fuel for fire and are a better fire retardant. We saw at least one metal roof during our stops.
Trees and tree limbs too near or overhanging a house present a fire hazard. So are fallen leaves that collect near doorways, outdoor steps and other areas of the base of the structure as well as in gutters. So get out the leaf blower or rake and get them out of the way, even if the wind eventually blows them back, Rossetti advised. Tree branches should be kept 20 feet away from chimneys.
“If there is a cinder block foundation it’s not so much of a problem,” he said, but it’s best to keep leaves from piling up around the house.
If you are planting trees, “go with hardwoods (leafy trees) rather than softwoods” nearer to the house. Pine trees fuel fires. Mountain Laurel and juniper trees are also highly flammable.
Rossetti said there should be 30 feet of open space in all directions from the home and any outbuildings.
The DOF has come up with a “woodland home/structure wildfire hazard assessment.” It’s available online at firewisevirginia.org. It assigns a number value to existing conditions on properties that either increase or decrease the degree of threat from fire. The results are tallied and an answer key at the end shows whether there is low, moderate, high or extreme risk from fire.
Property owners can run the test themselves to see where they stand and then take any corrective action necessary.
The site also has tips on the design and construction of structures, landscaping your property, as well as what to do if fire threatens.
Along the lines of reducing risk, a recent DOF press release also advises the following:
• Ensure your house number/address can be easily seen from the street;
• Put a hose (at least 100 feet long) on a rack and attach it to an outside faucet;
• Instead of burning leaves, compost them in the fall;
• If you must burn leaves, trash or other debris, obey all laws and restrictions; clear an area around your burn pile, and keep burn piles small;
• Always have a shovel and a fully charged water hose on hand before lighting your fire;
• Never burn if the wind is in excess of 10 mph and/or is blowing toward your home or your neighbor’s;
• Plan, discuss and practice an escape plan with your family and your pets, and
• Call 911 and report your fire right away.
Richie Burke, emergency services coordinator for Rappahannock County, said “the last thing people think about is an emergency until it happens,” but he said the steps already outlined, like making it easier for emergency equipment to get to your house, really can help first responders to help you.
We are currently in the most active part of the year for wildfires, a period during which open fires are banned until after 4 p.m. statewide. Both the active fire period and the burn ban end in May “when the trees are all leafed out,” Rossetti said.
There is a shorter active wildfire season in the fall that runs from approximately Oct. 15 through Nov. 30.
There is a statewide outdoor burn ban before 4 p.m. daily through April 30.
The DOF doesn’t just manage forests and provides information. It also helps in firefighting efforts.
“We form a unified command structure with local fire departments and work with them to extinguish the fire in the most effective and safe way,” Rossetti said.
DOF personnel go to work on the fire lines with firefighters.
“In the past couple I’ve cut down burning trees, done planning and deployment, set back fires, and done mop up. We really do just about everything.”
On Feb. 19, the day of the Smith Run fire in Shenandoah National Park, there was not a lot happening in Rappahannock County; Rossetti was working on five active fires in Fauquier County.
The DOF deployed a bulldozer and two part-time workers to Warren County to try to help stop the fire that had started on private land before it moved into the park.
When fighting a fire, saving lives comes first, then buildings, then land.
“The Department of Forestry and county fire departments do everything we can to protect lives, homes, property and land but it makes our job a lot easier and to be more successful if residents take steps in advance to protect homes and not put firefighters’ lives in danger,” Rossetti said.