Dealing with Oklahoma wildfires

STILLWATER – Fire in Oklahoma is extremely beneficial. It restores grasslands and controls unwanted species. It is a natural process that provides habitat for certain wildlife.
However, the benefits are hard to imagine when a wildfire gets into structures such as houses, barns and sheds.

The National Firewise Communities (firewise.org) program is a good reference to become proactive against wildfires before they happen, said Dwayne Elmore, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist. Taking simple steps such as raking back leaves and cleaning out gutters could save a house or structure from a fire. Remove items that will burn easily from around the house, like firewood and dense vegetation, including flammable trees such as redcedar,.

“You want to create a defensible space of about 100 feet all the way around the house,” he said. “Keeping the grass short and the trees trimmed is vital to the safety of your home.”

All trees within this 100-foot radius should be pruned so they can be easily walked under. Any ladder fuels, such as shrubs that allow a surface flame to engulf the tree canopy, also should be removed.

“Trees within this defensible space should ideally have about 30 feet of space between them to keep fires from traveling through the canopy,” Elmore said. “Any redcedar tree near the structure should be removed, as redcedar is highly flammable.”

Most people do not realize how far flames can carry from a burning tree. As an example, a 10-foot redcedar has the capacity to ignite a structure at least 100 feet away.

Many homes in Oklahoma have much larger redcedars in closer proximity.

Once the trees are trimmed and the grass is mowed, all the debris needs to be removed, as it will serve as fuel to a wildfire. The idea is to remove any fuels away from the house. Aside from prescribed burning to clear these fuels, regular maintenance is the next best thing.

“Consider the flammability of the structure itself. Nonflammable shingles or metal roofs should be used in Oklahoma,” Elmore said. “Brick or stone is an ideal firewise building material. Wood structures are more hazardous and require a careful evaluation of fuels in close proximity to the structure.”

It is a homeowner’s responsibility, not the fire department, to ensure the survivability of a home. Many homes are destroyed each year because the homeowner did not proactively protect them and firefighters could do little to intervene.

“Also, poor decisions from homeowners affect their neighbors as well,” Elmore said. “Neighborhoods and communities must be in this together. One poorly managed residence puts others at risk.”