How You Should Prepare for Summer Wildland Fires

CAL FIRE, Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville – B1411

Given our current winter weather, it may be hard to imagine the return of warm, dry, and windy weather that supports the ignition and spread of wildland fires.  Yet summer is right around the corner.  When you live in California you need to prepare; it is not a matter of “IF” a wildland fire will occur, it is “WHEN”.

Sonoma County “dodged a bullet” during the last couple years of dry weather regarding wildland fire.  Wildland fires started throughout the region, yet they were extinguished early by local fire fighters.  The largest wildland fire in Sonoma County during 2016 was the Sawmill Fire located in the Geysers, which burned 1547 acres in September.

Wildland fires are dependent upon weather, fuels, and topography.  Northern California’s weather patterns are primed for wildland fires in the summer and fall months; warm weather, heavy fuels and diverse terrain. Altering fuels, aids in reducing the intensity of a wildland fire.   Altering and reducing fuels is what personnel in the fire services refer to as “defensible space.”  A defensible space of 100 feet around structures is required by law (CA Public Resource Code 4291). The goal of defensible space is to protect your home and provide fire fighters a safer place to work to suppress wildland fire or defend your residence and outbuildings from an approaching wildland fire.

“Help Us – Help You” . . .  is a message from the fire service to homeowners to work on their defensible space in the damp, cooler months by altering and removing fuels.  Defensible space addresses reduction and modification of vegetation (trees, brush, grass, landscaping, etc.) to improve the chances your residence and buildings to withstand wildland fire conditions.  Defensible space components include the proper selection of landscaping plants and trees with appropriate fuel modifications to reduce vegetation that threaten your residence during a wildland fire.

Research has shown that buildings ignite by exposure to heat and burning embers.  The removal of the lower limbs of trees and disrupting the continuity of vegetation reduces the approaching wildland fire’s intensity and heat production.  These actions also help keep a wildland fire burning in surface fuels (on the ground) rather than through the tops of the trees.  Fire fighters are less effective at slowing or stopping a fire burning in the tops of trees.  Keeping your roof and gutters clear of leaves and other material reduces the possibility an ember can ignite your eaves or roof.  Certain building features and topography increase your fire risk which may trigger an increase in the amount of defensible space needed for your residence and other buildings.  Other preventative measures are the removal of stored materials such as fire wood and flammable lawn furniture next to your residence.

Once a wildland fire starts under warm, dry, and windy conditions fire fighters can quickly become overwhelmed and have limited ability to control a fire until the weather changes.  Under these conditions, fire fighters prioritize the protection of life over property (residences, buildings, vehicles, etc.) and property over the protection of our environment.  Fire fighters may have to make decisions regarding which property to defend and where to attempt to halt the spread of wildland fire.

A well-marked road, posted addresses, and water sources are important and become critical during a large wildland fire triggering the response of fire fighters from outside the area.  If a delivery service has a difficult time locating your residence, so will emergency services (fire, law and medical).

The summer (peak fire season) is NOT the time to create a defensible space around your structures.  Equipment and tools used to create defensible space can cause wildland fires.  It only takes one spark to create a large damaging wildland fire.  The spring months are for creating a defensible space and the summer months are when homeowners shift to maintaining a defensible space.

A resource to assist homeowners in creating and maintaining a defensible space is Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services’ free chipper program.  Residents cut and stack vegetation per program guidelines and Sonoma County Fire will send a chipper and crew to chip the piles for free. The chipper program is an excellent resource, especially for neighbors working together to clear adjoining properties or along shared roads.  The chipper program will open in May 2017.  For more information regarding the chipper program and eligibility, visit their website: or call 707-565-6070.

Planning and conducting fuel reduction work during winter and spring may allow the opportunity for pile burning.  A fire department burn permit is usually required starting each year on May 1st.  Pile burning is not allowed during the summer months.   Consult your local air quality district if you would like to conduct pile burning to reduce leaves, limbs, timber litter, and other vegetative clippings.

Each residence and building is unique.  Working together before an emergency, such as a wildland fire, improve the odds to decrease losses and damages that can occur during a wildland fire.  Working together also allows fire personnel to become familiar to an area before an emergency occurs.

Contact your local CAL FIRE Station for questions on defensible space.  Also, visit the CAL FIRE website: and “The Ready for Wildfire” website for additional wildland fire tips.  Both websites offer information regarding what to do before, during, and after a wildland fire such as if you are requested to evacuate your residence, how to develop an evacuation plan, and be prepared to reduce the time it takes to get out of harm’s way.  I can be contacted at or  707-529-2523.






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