Creating ‘Defensible Space’ Could Save Your Home From a Forest Fire
by Martinique Davis
Jun 27, 2012 | 2150 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print

MOUNTAIN VILLAGE – Smoke in the air from the Mancos wildfire, television news coverage of the mass evacuations from Colorado Springs and signs that broadcast the statewide fire ban are reminders that Colorado is currently in the midst of one of the driest summers in a decade. The threat of forest fires looms larger with each passing day without rain.

While there’s little to be done about this summer’s drought, residents can take steps to protect property located near or within our local forest, says Mountain Village Forester Dave Bangert.

While there may be no way to build a fully fireproof home, being conscientious about the building materials used (especially for roofing, decking, siding and framing) plays a significant role in a structure’s survivability, if threatened by a fire. 

Additionally, and perhaps most usefully for existing structures, is the creation of defensible space around them. “Defensible space” refers to the area around a structure where fuels and vegetation are treated, cleared or reduced to both slow the spread of wildfire toward the forest and to slow a fire from the structure to the surrounding forest. 

A defensible space plan generally consists of three zones. Zone 1 is the 15-foot area around a structure from which all flammable vegetation is removed (with few exceptions). Zone 2 is at least 75 feet from a structure (depending on the slope), with tree crown spacing of at least 10 feet and branches pruned to a 10-foot height. Zone 3 extends from the edge of Zone 2 to maximum distance of 500 feet (or to the property boundary), where all dead, diseased and infested trees are to be removed.

“There are two main things that can protect your home from wildfire: Building materials and defensible space. Those two things can really make or break the survivability of a structure,” Bangert says.

In 2010, Mountain Village Town Council voted to make changes to Article 12 of the town’s Land Use Ordinance regarding forest health, fire mitigation and tree removal, requiring property owners to create a defensible space plan for their property for the following types of development and redevelopment:

1. New building construction that will create habitable space;

2. Additions that increase habitable floor area or stories that have a valuation

$50,000 or greater; and

3. Any alteration of the landscaping that has a valuation of $50,000 or greater.

Existing homes and undeveloped lots are not specifically required to implement defensible space plans, but are strongly encouraged to do so.

These requirements make Mountain Village one of the few communities in the nation to enact tangible legislation designed to tackle the problem of forest health and wildfire mitigation.

According to Bangert, homeowners wishing to better protect their properties from the threat of wildfire should look first at what he calls the “common sense things,” such as planter boxes built directly under windows, trees with crowns touching the roof or siding, and the fire resistance of roofing materials. Creating defensible space around a home doesn’t mean a property owner can’t have landscaping in the 15-foot buffer around the structure, he explains, it just means that landscaping should be designed intelligently, with the threat of fire in mind. 

According to Jonathan Greenspan, owner of Telluride-based resource recovery and land management service SUNRISE, creating defensible space is not just about clearing all flammable materials from around a structure. “I focus on forest health, in conjunction with fire mitigation,” he explains of his company’s forestation and tree removal services. “If you strengthen the trees, making them more resilient to disease and insects, you’re no longer inviting fire, but rather pushing it away,” he says. “You can actually design the forest to work to your advantage, in terms of saving your equity.”

Creating defensible space is not a one-time project, either, Bangert emphasizes. Ideally, a homeowner creates a defensible space plan that can be implemented over time, starting first with the area closest to the home and working out from there. Additionally, creating effective defensible space requires constant maintenance, just like any other annual home maintenance project.  

“Ultimately, defensible space becomes a tool to create a healthier forest overall,” Bangert says of the underlying benefits of local homeowners creating a defensible space plan for their properties.

Homeowners in Mountain Village are eligible for free defensible space, tree removal and fire mitigation consultations from Bangert, or (970) 369-8203. Area property owners can also request consultations from the state Forest Service office, Norwood Ranger District, 970/327-4261.

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