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Volunteers from the Lone Star Hand Crew chip materials they removed from local properties to create shaded fuel breaks. These clearances will help prevent the spread of wildfires. | Photo Courtesy: John Durham, Lake Travis Fire Rescue

Trees Keep the Flames at Bay

June 4, 2013

When you can't handle the heat, trees provide you with proper shelter and shade from summer's swelter. But trees can also protect you and your home from harm when the forest's fiery beast would otherwise be more difficult to control.

As temperatures climb into the 100s and 110s this summer, your property not only faces the threat of drought but also the threat of raging, destructive wildfires. Because flames are typically relentless once momentum builds, the best offense is a good defense.

Defensible space, or a specified radius around a home, helps protect vulnerable landowners and their properties from wildfires. "The main reason for defensible space is to reduce the amount of flammable vegetation and give the fire departments the opportunity to 'defend' your home from fire," explains Tim Morin, forester and project developer for Davey Resource Group in California. "Having your home protected with defensible space not only protects you, but your neighbors as well."

In California, a 100-foot defensible space around a home is required by law. The 30-foot radius immediately surrounding a home, or "lean, clean and green zone," requires the greatest reduction in flammable vegetation, while the "reduced fuel zone" remaining within property lines may depend on the steepness of the lawn, as well as existing vegetation.

According to Morin, each acre within a property located in California should have 100 trees or less. "These trees between 30 and 70 feet from the home should have the lower branches pruned to a height of eight feet from the ground, and branches should be no less than eight feet from the roof, or 10 feet from the chimney," he says. Morin explains landowners should remove highly flammable vegetation, such as pine needles and coniferous shrubs, within 30 feet of a home.

Spacing between trees in the reduced fuel zone also improves the chance of stopping a wildfire before it destroys a home. Either horizontal or vertical spacing between plants or the removal of plants beneath large trees will optimize the purpose of the reduced fuel zone.

Davey Gets Defensive

Lake Travis Fire Rescue (LTFR) established Texas' first Wildland Fuels Mitigation Pilot Program after the state's central region experienced an abnormally extreme fire season in 2011. The program's major goal is to reduce wildfire risks to area property owners by creating shaded fuel breaks behind their homes. So far, neighborhoods surrounding the LTFR district have suffered the brunt of the damage.

To remove unwanted plant material from the area, however, LTFR needed some assistance in terms of transportation. That's when Davey stepped in to help.

"LTFR came to Davey for a dump truck because they knew we had many on hand," explains Area Manager Steve White. "Because they didn't have funding required to supply a vehicle of their own, we worked out a deal for them to use the truck for the entirety of the project, from September to March."

Davey dump truck
Davey donated a dump truck to the Wildland Fuels Mitigation Pilot Program, onto which the Lone Star Hand Crew attached their chipper. "We're proud to be able to give back to the community for such a worthwhile project," says Area Manager Steve White.

White explains the west side of Austin is covered in non-fire-resistant vegetation. "If prevailing winds enter the region, wildfires could get out of control very quickly," he says. "If the fuel load is not reduced, dead, downed branches and limbs could ignite. Considering the recent drought, it's smart to prevent damage today so we don't have a disaster tomorrow."

The Lone Star Hand Crew, comprising nine individuals, had completed basic wildland firefighter and chainsaw training to tackle the overgrown area. They spent approximately six months reducing excessive vegetation, thinning juniper trees and removing and chipping all materials.

Davey's truck came into play by transporting chipped materials to a local dumping site for recycling. "The chips are used as a road base on landfill roads and also mixed with other organic products to create numerous types of ground cover," explains John Durham, LTFR assistant fire chief.

tree removal
Lone Star Hand Crew members remove trees from the rear properties of central Texas homeowners, who experienced the worst wildland urban interface fire season to date in 2011. Photo Courtesy: Lynette Haaland, Four Points News

Because the black-capped vireo and golden cheek warbler - both endangered species of birds in the U.S. - settle in Central Texas in spring and summer, the project warranted a restricted timeframe to avoid disturbing the birds' ideal habitat. Although the timeframe presented a challenge to make an impact on the project, the Wildland Fuels Mitigation program ultimately treated more than 22 acres, including the removal of 1,000 cubic yards of chipped material and the direct treatment of areas behind 119 homes.

"This was a good opportunity to give back to the community," White explains, adding the program does a great job teaching landowners about fire safety and fuel removal so they can continue the project independently to do their part. "Our involvement was valuable, and we're proud to be able to give back to the community for such a worthwhile project."

The vehicle Davey donated to LTFR was exactly what they needed to complete the project efficiently. "We were delighted to help for what little we were able to do," White says. He expects the program to expand in the fall and continue until the next season.

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