Coping: With Wildfires & Landsmanship

If there’s a lesson to be learned from those horrible fires that continue to plague the area of Sonoma and Napa counties out in California, it’s that land management needs to be taken more seriously.

I took the camera out on our property Wednesday and shot a few pictures to illustrate a couple of points from the perspective of a “fireman’s son” who has been slowly whacking on the land for a good long while now.

Remember, when we bought this property in 2003, it was virtually all overgrown.  Elaine and I (with the able assistance of my BroInLaw) were able to make slow, but steady progress. But as you look through the pictures that follow, you may find some ideas on how to improve the “fire resistance” of your land if you happen to own some.

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Let’s begin by stating the obvious:  Fire needs three things to work – the Triangle of Fire.  Oxygen, fuel, and a source of ignition.

Even out here, we have unexpected sources of ignition;  About four years ago, to land squatters set fire to their camp in the Outback a couple of farms north of us.

They skedaddled out as soon as the fire broke out, but that left my neighbor up the hill and me – armed with Kubotas with Bush Hogs on them, to try and get a line around the fire.  By the time the Texas Forest Service arrived on scene to finish the job with a D-6 Caterpillar, we had the fire about 60 percent contained.

We both had enough fire savvy to remember that fires like to a) burn up hill and b) in the direction the wind blows it.  So we contained the uphill side.

Still, when comes to putting up a “don’t cross barrier” a D-6 Cat is amazing.  In 15-minutes – maybe 20 – the Cat got done with two pretty good tractors would have taken the rest of the afternoon to do effectively.  The Cat doesn’t have a problem with brush.

The big problem with wild fires is that a fire down low, while dangerous, is a much different animal than a fire which gets up into the dry branches in the “crown” of the tree.  Once the fire starts “crowning” you’re screwed until you can get a BIG line around the fire.

So the first rule of personal land management, so far as we’re concerned, is to make sure there is a big “air gap” between the grass and low brush and the lowest of the branches.  Here’s an area which OM2’s son will be working on this coming week.

This is an area (that boxed X) that needs to be limbed up.

A grass fire will generally burn from the length of the fuel source, to twice it’s length.  4″ dry grass might get flame up 8 to 12-inches.  So if you have brush higher this, the odds of it “climbing up into the crown” is pretty high if there’s a grass fire and you haven’t limbed-up.

There’s a problem in California with environmental regulations.  They love their environment, so when the rains come (as they do, depending on La Nina) the natural processes take over and the land sprouts brush all over the place.  We saw this first hand up in the Angeles National Forest when we were living in Burbank.

Problem is that property owners want to keep the brush cleared up because they know damn good and well that if the brush is big enough to lead to a crowning fire, well, that’s what happens.

Limbing up isn’t that hard:  You simply sight with your eye along a level 6 to 10-feet up, or so:  (and start cutting!)

Get the low stuff whacked down and limbed up.  Then, as time allows, starting from the home and working out, you move up as high as your pole saw (and beer supplies) will allow.

Ideally, we’ll be working at getting the trees around the house limbed-up to about 14-feet, or so.  Where my buddy (the retired major fellow) and I worked on the land a couple of years back, we got up about 10- feet and as you can see, we’ve keep the ground cover cut back so we could have a grass fire go through and it wouldn’t have anywhere to “climb.”

As you can see, there are a few places on the left where it wouldn’t hurt to “get after it” a bit, but those are really moist succulents and even now, they don’t light off.

The other stuff though is nice and low.  Sadly, that includes the well-parched lawn.  With a few rains, it usually fills in – just in time to be covered with leaves.

If there’s a national lesson in the California fires?  Well, here’s a bunch of them.

  • I love the environment and Bambi as much as anyone.  But brush is a problem when it presents a grass fire with a route to become a “crowning” forest fire.  Environmentalism is fine – as long as they’re willing to pay the insurance bills (or forego the wine).  Pay the fire insurance premiums or get out of my pole saw’s way.
  • Limbing up your property will reduce the habitat somewhat.  Therefore, pick a distance out from your home where you want fire safety and then make sure that you have a good (defensible) fire break.  It should be wide enough that anything on the other side of it won’t be able to fall through the crowns on the “safe side” of the break.  A road is often thought of as a “fire break” but once you’ve seen how far a falling tree takes fire?  Width of break should be height of trees…and no, we’re not there yet.
  • Limbing up will get the wind a lot more shade to blow through and your property will be considerably cooler.  Drier, perhaps, but cooler.  In the South?  Bring ‘er on.
  • Places in the woods have pine needles falling like crazy this time of the year.  Our “hand” cleared off 6″ of pine straw from the top of our storage shed a couple of weeks back.  As the weather cools, I’ll be doing more limbing up and brush removal to a big burn pile which will be lit off when we’ve had an inch, or two, maybe three, of rain.
  • Make sure you’ve got combustibles away from the house.
  • We’ve been slowly “armoring” the property.  Concrete “backer board” is cheap – cheaper than a house, anyway, so between that and some metal mobile-home skirting, you can fireproof at least the first 18-24″ of your home.  Then, if you keep the yard trimmed up, whatever fire does come along will have to cross a wide expanse of low lawn, and there shouldn’t be enough fuel for it to “work up” into a structure fire.
  • We have made sure that the two big trees which provide a lot of shade for the house in the afternoon, are surrounded by 10-feet of gravel.  Pea gravel ain’t bad landscaping material and if you blow the leaves off when dry, you won’t catch them in the gravel.
  • We will be having the local power company come out this fall and taking down half a dozen trees, or more.  These are in positions where they could fall on lines.  I know that doesn’t sound too dangerous, but I’ve been to two medium-sized fires within two miles which were caused by rotten trees falling into the lines, causing sparks, and off you go.
  • Grab and go bags ready?  Case of water in the car?  3-days of MRE’s and toilet paper?  Insurance and all paperwork for the house scanned?
  • Got the laptops and the network attached storage ready to go in 10 seconds or less? We have two 4 TB NAS units that are always ready to go.
  • Cash and firearms ready to move out?  Might have to leave some ammo behind (sigh) but arms in the trunk with an ammo box for each plus a cleaning kit.

Speaking of which:  Next time you want to spend $20 on yourself, look at a Ohuhu 28pcs Universal Hand Gun, Rifle & Shot Gun Cleaning Kit with Carrying Case (28 pcs) for the grab and go.  Toss in a bottle of Hoppe’s and can of Royal Purple 10036 Synthetic Gun Oil High Performance Multipurpose Gun Lubricant – 4 oz., and you’re ready for most anything on the horizon.

We assume you have a pole saw like the BLACK+DECKER LPP120 20V Lithium Ion Pole Saw, 8″.  We’ve been abusing the B&D 20 V yard tools a fair bit and they work in spite of us.  A review of them will be along one of these first days…

Last but not least, next year, when you have a choice at the store on which wine to buy?  But the Napa or Sonoma brands.  Support our fellow Americans and their livelihood!  Even if it costs a bit more.  We can afford to help this way, right?

Write when you get rich…

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George Ure
Amazon Author Page: UrbanSurvival Bio:

21 thoughts on “Coping: With Wildfires & Landsmanship”

  1. I would think that it would also be a good idea if each individual person had a backpack or tote or whatever that they could put in the car that contained things that they wanted without input from anyone else as to why they wanted ‘that’ . . . keepsakes are often not rational, and are personal!

    I’d save mostly books and photos – but that’s me.

  2. I’m sure you remember the fire about 10 years ago in the Cascades along Highway 2.
    In the areas where the private timber companies had done as you suggest, there was little to no damage to the forest. On the opposite side of the road, that was managed by the Forest Service, there was complete destruction. The contrast was stark.
    The tour guide in Glacier Park, said it is always better to let fires burn. It creates open space for the animals and lots of grass for food.
    However, if we continue to encroach our towns into the forested areas, we have to control the Forest or pay the price.

    • I grew up in the NW and never bought the “let it burn” meme. It never made sense to me. Logging roads not only set up fire breaks, they provided access. Clear cutting also created breaks. To me, the current system is designed to create these fires. 17 fires triggered almost on cue, with one actually in a town raises all sorts of questions.

    • Yes, but does it SMELL as good as Hoppe’s or that Hoppe clone aftershave I get out of Louisiana?

  3. What do you guys think about investing in Puerto Rico?

    Houses seem cheap and the island has to be rebuilt.

    Most of the renters are fleeing to Florida for the free stuff. This leaves property owners.

  4. Now you know why civilization developed around villages and farmers all walked out to their fields each day.

    If you had 5-6 families in your “compound,” this fire prevention chore would seem like child’s play. It would also do wonders for your physical security when gangs start roving, looking for food and….

    There is also an art to designing your fire protection to effectively use a backfire. It’s just against human nature to start a fire, but it can save everything. Ranchers used to plow two furrows about six feet apart along their fence lines. If a fire was coming, they would simply burn off the grass between the furrows. In an emergency, they would make a two bottom plow furrow and set fire to the grass on the fire side of the furrows. I never heard of a ranch headquarters burning in my lifetime but I saw several that burned off on all sides.

  5. George,

    Good info on land management / fire breaks…

    I hope you mean “wildfires” as in out of control, (cause the firemen watched these neighborhoods burn) but not that they were natural.
    — Bix says 17 fires set in a 2 hr timeframe in a 100 mile radius…- not natural.

    Bix Weir of RoadtoRoota lives in CA and experienced odd fires of the past and is now headed to the area, where his uncle/aunt lost home, everything of 50 yrs. Other family nearby are now evacuating the area.. Also, I’ve seen video/photos of the area show trees/bushes standing some with leaves, whereas twisted metal, too many oddities of the “fire” devastation.

    “California Fires…Another Conspiracy? (Bix Weir)”

    “No. California’s Total Devastation (Bix Weir)”

  6. Logical and realistic destination…

    I have a friend that has a place next door to a facility to house a small town.. it’s really quite interesting..
    The biggest problem I noticed is it’s built near a fault line. It’s definitely remote. So far in the sticks.
    Most of the places I know of are just that near fault and old lava flow lines and isolated.
    Now consider a true catastrophic event..if your place is to far to walk to it’s just to far.

    A catastrophic event is seldom evident till it’s here.

  7. @George,
    Can you give some thought to the totally burnt down HOUSES and contents and cars, twisted metal……in Santa Clara…when the TREES and shrubs are still standing and most are not even charred…Most of the houses are ashes on the ground without ANY walls or studs (metal or wood left standing)..seems very strange since Forrest fires burn at 1300 to 1700 degrees F…yet most home furnishings anf Metal require 2400 -2600 degrees f to destroy by melting..Would really like your thoughts here


  8. Here near the Lobo fire in CA, my friend’s got out of their house with only the pajamas on their backs and a laptop. 70 years of accumulated stuff up in smoke.
    The next day they check on their place just to find a dozen people sifting through the ashes for valuables.
    All the prepping, hundreds of feet of defensible space….. gone.
    Concrete plank siding, metal roof, acres of mowed grass around the house, no matter. It just took one strong gust of wind at 3AM.

  9. George before you move to that mtn town in AZ you need to look at the size of the fire that started east of town and went I think about 100 mi. east and probaably 50 mi north south. Drove through it about 2 years after. If the wind gets up with fires going there isnt much even a D-9 can do for a fire break. Looks like they may get some real destructiion in California with the winds getting up today.

  10. The people South of the border have the right idea with “controlled burns” of brush. I guess that’s why we don’t hear much about wildfires in Mehicupp.
    Here in CA the local gentry would pitch a huge bitch if they tried it here!

  11. Anything with five feet of dirt and/or concrete over it is likely to survive. If you live in an area with a real chance of serious wildfire, you owe it to yourself to build such a space, with insulated and serial door access. You may not want to stay for the fire, but you certainly want your extra stuff in there.

    In Australia, they build underground shelters from fires, and they will fight them until the fire gets too close, then go into the hidey-hole until it’s burned over. Then come out and mop up. The forest service will do what it can, but you can see the inadequacy of the response to multiple wildfires. Everyone needs to do their part.

    Regarding a D-6 Cat: Great as long as it’s running well, but it’s a bear to transport unless you have a semi with a lowboy, and of course, a CDL-A. Depending on the blade and state, you may also need permits.

  12. Ahhh… The really big issue is home construction when looking at fire survivability.

    Asphalt roofs are just like pouring diesel onto a fire. Anything combustible used to make a roof is simply a very bad idea if you are looking at potential wildfire nearby. And yet this is what is considered standard in much of the North America.

    I think one would be hard pressed to find old houses and buildings in most countries that have asphalt roofs. The best roofs for fire prevention are metal and tile or slate. The why is obvious.

    Tile is perhaps the best roof material – repels fire and due to the way it is attached to the building, can be made very windproof simply by applying caulk or mortar to the low (overlapping) end of the tiles when installed. This is common practice in Latin America within hurricane prone zones.

    Constructing a home of concrete or cinder block is a way to guarantee fire resistance and both flood and hurricane survival. Yet this type of construction usually requires obtaining a variance from local building codes and HOA’s.

    Flooding a cement block home means you clean out the mess, dry it out, and go right back into the building. In a fire, you might get singed but that is about all. In a hurricane, the roof might let go, but the walls are still there if built correctly. Won’t take repeated pounding of big waves, but nothing short of a seawall does.

    Ever wonder why most schools, municipal structures and hospitals are built with cement block construction? And yet we must get “special permission” to use this material to build a home in 90% of the larger cities…

    Yes, when I get to building my last home in the next few years, it will be cement blocks.

    And did I mention no termite damage or perpetual treatment to avoid those pesky wood nibblers?

      • Howzabout giraffes or okapi why not think outside the box.I bet the mastodons did a good job clearing the shrubs before the
        Clovis killed them off. Also in Scotland no quakes or nutters with guns. Guid hogmanay show in edinburgh and good whiskey for the haggis for auld lang syne. Cheers frae the inebriate Scotchman.

  13. Why not come back to the land of your ancestors? No brushfires no hurricanes/tornadoes no fracking no race probs no american politics .Sun don’t shine so much but its a treat when it does.Air con not required and plenty of free water.

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