AMARILLO With the recent wildfire outbreaks in Panhandle and West Texas counties, many rural homeowners saw wildfire racing across acres of knee-high dry grass right toward their homes.
Keeping grassy areas mown along with some other simple measures can go a long way in reducing the wildfire risk to rural homes, say experts with Texas Cooperative Extension.
Those new to rural homesteading often find their houses at risk from wildfire, said Tom Benton, Extension agent in Hutchinson County.
Wildfire burned more than 60,000 acres of range or prairie land and a number of rural homes burned in early March in Hutchinson County .
A common Panhandle scenario these days, Benton said, is for people to relocate from urban areas to a few acres outside of town. These relocations may be part of an abbreviated subdivision three or four houses or simply a small plot. But many of these properties adjoin prairie or rangeland.
When people relocate, they often bring their suburban-style lawn mower with them, Benton said. But such machines, either push mowers or small riding mowers, are just not up to keeping several acres of grass under control, he said.
“And with (Panhandle) winds, a fire 10 or 15 miles away can arrive in no time,” he said.
There’s no way to guarantee a rural home will not fall victim to a wildfire, said Janie Harris, Extension housing and environment specialist in College Station. But a few simple measures can help homeowners and rural residents reduce the risk.
“While people in and near urban centers may have the advantage of a nearby fire department, they shouldn’t ignore their own ability to reduce the risk of a fire on their property,” said Harris, a delegate to the national Extension Disaster Education Network. The network is “intended to help all Texas citizens by sharing educational resources to reduce the impact of natural and man-made disasters for individuals, families and communities.”
Foremost on the list of wildfire preventions is to clear brush, tall grass, dead landscape plants and other combustible materials from around the house. Called a “defensible space,” Harris said, the cleared area should be equal to one-and-a-half times the height of the home plus 30 feet.
Benton added that in the dry Panhandle climate even mowing can be dangerous, as a spark from the exhaust can ignite a dry lawn.
“It’s a good idea to water the lawn a little, if possible, before mowing,” he said.
It’s also a good idea to move any wooden structures, such as picnic trestle tables or storage sheds as far from the house as possible, Benton added.
Harris said other preventive steps include:
Remove leaves, dead limbs and any other flammable plant material from the house’s roof and rain gutters.
Replace evergreen landscaping plants with less flammable hardwood species.
Store firewood at least 30 feet from the home.
Thin any nearby stands of trees.
Also, risk can be reduced if trees are 15 to 20 feet apart and deadwood and brush is cleared from within the stand, Harris said.
If the house is on a slope, increase the defensible zone to at least 75 feet. Fire travels 16 times faster up a slope than on level ground, Harris noted.
Another safety tip is to install outdoor faucets on all sides of the house whenever possible, she said. But don’t rely solely on household water supply to extinguish fires. When wildfires take out electric lines, local wells stop pumping.
“We had people trying to use water from their hot tubs (to put out fires),” Benton said.
To make it easier for firefighters, keep the driveway accessible and the house address clearly marked.
Information on wildfire and tips for protecting homes, farms and ranches from damage by wildfire can be found on Extension’s Disaster Education Network Web site at http://texashelp.tamu.edu . Click on “Hot Topics” and choose “Wildfire.”
Other wildfire information Web sites are:
Fire, a collective site from Texas Cooperative Extension, http://agnews.tamu.edu/wildfire/
Fire Prevention, a collective site from the Texas Forest Service, http://txforestservice.tamu.edu/education/prevention/ .