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STILLWATER, Okla. – When looking around the Oklahoma landscape, you may be a little bit surprised. It’s only a few weeks until the official start of winter, but the landscape is still relatively green, thanks to a fair amount of late-season rain. The recent snow also added moisture to the landscape.
While wildfire may not be at the forefront of your thoughts right now, landowners should take this time to prepare for the upcoming fire season.
John Weir, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension associate specialist and fire ecologist, said preparation is key when it comes to saving land and property in a fire.
“We’ve definitely grown some fuel this year and this isn’t our typical fall weather. We’re usually much drier than this,” Weir said. “But it’s going to change. We’ll get some freezing weather and this green grass will go dormant. And we know dormant fuels burn very well. Fire is something that should be on our minds all year and we need to ask ourselves what we can do to protect our families, our property and our homes in the event of a fire.”
OSU Cooperative Extension partnered with five other universities to put together a new publication that addresses preparing the ranch and farm for wildfire. Partnering universities were University of Wyoming Extension, South Dakota State University Extension, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Kansas State Research and Extension and New Mexico State University. The publication, E-1048 Wildfire: Preparing the Ranch and Farm, is available here.
First and foremost, Weir said, homeowners need to know “Am I covered? Get with your insurance agent and check on our coverage. Find out what you need to do to document your property. Take an inventory for your home, barn, garage and equipment. Document with photos and video and keep extra copies of the documentation in a safe place. Because everything is still relatively green right now, fire is far from our minds, but that will change, and everyone needs to be ready.”
Weir said to look at your property in zones. The immediate zone is within 5 feet of the home. Keep fuels down by mowing the lawn regularly and trimming trees. For those who use mulch in flower beds adjacent to the home, use fire-resistant material or be sure to keep the beds watered.
“A deck on a home is a nice place for entertaining, but it also can serve as fuel for a fire. Enclose all sides of the deck to keep embers out in the event of a fire,” he said. “This also will keep grass and weeds from growing underneath, which can fuel a fire. Also, don’t store flammable items under the deck or patio.”
Remove leaves and debris from the roof and gutters. Using non-flammable roofing materials can substantially reduce the risk of a structure catching on fire when embers fall on the rooftop.
Weir said in the event you must evacuate your home, be sure to close all windows, doors and garage doors. This will keep flying embers out of the structure.
Plant trees back away from the house so they don’t grow up into the eaves of the home and branches don’t hang over the roof. Keep trees pruned up around the trunk and keep grass mowed short underneath. The fire will pass underneath and won’t get up into the tree. As the leaves fall, think about where they will accumulate, such as in the gutters and next to the home. These are the locations that can be problematic.
The next zone is the intermediate zone and is the area five to 30 feet from the home, barn or building. Weir said much like the area adjacent to the home, the intermediate zone needs to be maintained as well.
“Keep the grass cut short and make sure lower branches of trees are trimmed up 6 to 10 feet off the ground,” he said. “For those with propane or fuel tanks on the property, make sure they are at least 25 feet from your home and outbuildings. Keep the grass trimmed around them and consider using herbicides for weed/grass control. If possible, place these tanks on a gravel or concrete pad or other non-flammable material.”
The extended zone is up to about 200 feet from the home and other buildings. Remove dead trees from this area as they will serve as fuel in a fire. Remove small cedars/junipers growing between mature trees. Use driveways and roads to create firebreaks and make sure to dispose of heavy accumulations of litter, debris and other brush piles.
Weir said it’s important for landowners to know what to do in the event of an approaching wildfire.
“Know where to find the latest news and updates from local fire departments and media outlets. Also, keep important phone numbers readily available and keep an emergency supply kit and other valuables in your vehicle,” he said. “The recommended emergency evacuation prioritization list is people first, prescriptions, important documents, personal needs, keepsakes and valuables.”
If evacuation becomes necessary, leave as early as possible. Let someone know you’ve left your home and where you’re headed. No matter how familiar you are with an area, don’t drive into dense smoke.
Alan Clark was the fire chief in Beaver, Oklahoma, for 30 years. He has seen some big fires, such as the Starbuck Fire in early 2016.
“That fire burned 1.6 million acres in Texas and Oklahoma. That’s twice the size of Yellowstone,” Clark said. “It’s important to keep the fuel down around your farm and ranch. Part of the problem in the Starbuck Fire was the ice storm the year before that damaged so many trees. There was a lot of fuel for this fire.”
Like Weir, Clark said it’s important for homeowners to protect their land as best as they can. He said he sees people taking more precautions in his area of the state.
“Those wooden shingles on some homes look really nice, but they’re not good in a fire,” he said. “Your best defense is no trees or brush and build a wall around your property, but we know that isn’t possible. For many of us out here, we can’t mow our entire property. It’s important to cut firebreaks and keep the areas maintained near homes and outbuildings.”
As Oklahomans know all too well, wildfire can be devastating. Although it can’t always be prevented, there are steps landowners can take to cut down the possibility of severe damage.
“Cutting fire breaks and removing fuel sources from the land are key components to help keep a fire at bay,” Clark said.
No place is immune to wildfire and your best defense is to simply be as prepared as possible. The new publication, Wildfire: Preparing the Ranch and Farm, is a great guide to help landowners get prepared.