Lauren Larsen, UW-Madison, Division of Extension
Image credit: Colorado State Forest Service
Over the past decade, I have lived in places all over the country that have very different landscapes and different experiences with fire. I started out in the upper Midwest where prescribed burning is minimal and wildfire isn’t a major concern (compared to other parts of the country). I moved to the southeast where prescribed fire is used quite a bit, and I became more aware of what wildfire seasons were. I ended up out west for three years and quickly adjusted to what it is like to live with wildfire. My mindset and how I thought about wildfire risk shifted as I moved around, and one example of that sticks out clearly in my mind.
When I lived in Wisconsin thunder meant rain was coming and rain was usually a good thing. Thinking about all of the farmers who needed rain for their crops, it made me happy to hear the lightning strike. When I lived in Utah, thunder meant lightning, and lightning meant a potential wildfire ignition, which shifted my feelings away from excitement and more towards fear. I am fascinated by how a single event like a lightning strike can produce different emotions and thoughts about risk, depending on where we live and our life experiences. Enamored with wildfire and risk perceptions, I decided to dedicate five years of my life studying it as a doctoral student.
From my research I learned that there are often many reasons why folks don’t mitigate wildfire hazards on their property. One of my findings was that a person’s perception of risk wasn’t necessarily related to how flammable or hazardous their property was. In fact, it was consistently linked with perceptions of the flammability of the surrounding landscape. This brought me back full circle to the lightning strike thought. Perhaps our focus on the risks around us hinders our ability to focus on the risks right in front of us, on our own properties.
In this article I will talk about four considerations when assessing your wildfire risk and in preparing your home and property for a wildfire:
- Consider your local environment and anchor your risk accordingly
- Gather information from credible sources
- Assess your existing hazards and create an action plan
- Create an evacuation plan
Consider your local environment and anchor your risk accordingly
There are states and even areas within states that are more flammable than others. For example, the western U.S. tends to be more flammable than the Upper Midwest. What may be less obvious is how variations in your local environment change your risk level.
Consider this example: this year in Wisconsin we have already had more wildfires than we did in the entire 2020 calendar year. Our spring has been extremely dry; we didn’t see rain in most of the state until the middle of May (normally we get heavy rains in April). Since these conditions are dryer than normal and fire danger is high relative to last year, the DNR has pushed wildfire warning messages and encouraged residents to keep an eye on wildfire activity across the state.
Consider how your local environment changes over time and be conscious of conditions that are favorable for wildfire ignition and spread (dry, hot, and windy).
Gather information from credible sources
There is a lot of information available on how to mitigate wildfire hazards to homes and properties, and it can be overwhelming if you are just getting started. Consider starting with some nationally credited sources, which will give you a big picture understanding of why mitigation is important and how to get started.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a great list here on how to prepare for, stay safe during, and adjust after experiencing a wildfire.
- FireWise (NFPA) has a great website with information on wildfire causes and risks, and how to mitigate risks on your own property.
You should also look for state and local information to help you narrow down what actions are the most effective, and if there are programs available to help you cost-share some of the mitigation.
- Many states have wildfire specialists who are knowledgeable on this topic and can point you in the right direction. A great place to start would be to search online for your state, using keywords such as “Wildfire Specialist” to see what you can find.
- I work for UW-Madison, Division of Extension and we co-created a number of publications with the Wisconsin DNR on wildfire mitigation which you can find here. Most counties in each state have Extension offices, which are a great place to find publications and videos on landowner topics such as wildfire mitigation. If you don’t live in Wisconsin, try searching for similar publications in your home state!
- Check with your local wildland fire office to see if there are resources available to help you learn more about mitigation. In many counties there are cost-share programs to help residents with the financial commitment involved with wildfire mitigation.
Assess your existing hazards and create an action plan
After you have gathered resources on wildfire mitigation, you will want to assess your property risk level, and then ‘zoom out’ to look at the surrounding landscape. One simple way to do this is with a 2x2 system where you can map out short and long-term actions for your home and property. Check out the examples in the sample action plan below:
Install spark arrestors
Thin out trees with crowns that are touching
Screen in eaves and gutters
Remove firewood from under deck
Maintenance or long-term actions
Clear roof of needles
Keep grasses mowed and watered
Trim trees that are touching the home
Clear pine needles from ground
One of my favorite tools for helping landowners get started can be found on the Ready, Set, Go website. It provides a detailed seven-week program to help you make your home and property ready for wildfire. If you are interested in this program, click here. Each week provides an overview of what actions should be considered and why, as well as an action guide that you can print off to keep track of your progress.
It is important to take inventory of what can be done now as well as long-term. Some mitigation actions are annual, and some need to be done every few years. Revisit your checklist and goals before every fire season.
Create an evacuation plan
One area of wildfire preparedness that I have seen many folks overlook is the evacuation plan. Many facets can go into an evacuation plan, which can be overwhelming. Start by considering the following questions to get started, and add detail as you go.
- What needs to be evacuated? These can be more time consuming (children, pets, livestock) or quick and easy to grab (small safe, artwork, photo albums). Think about how long it could take to evacuate your property and consider delegating tasks to certain family members to expedite the process.
- Where will you go and how will you get there? Consider how many ways you can get out of town depending on which direction a fire is coming from (remember roadways may be blocked). Make a list of places you could evacuate to if you are evacuated from town.
- Create an evacuation bag that has essentials you will need if you are leaving your home for an extended period of time. I like to use this list from Ready.Gov; modify it to fit your family’s needs and requirements.
If you are just getting started and looking for some inspiration, check out some mitigation success stories from the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.