Landscaping can help prevent losses from wildland fire

Learn how simple annual yard cleanup can help prevent wildland fire from affecting structures on your property.

Michigan has over 10,000 wildland fires each year. While most of the fires remain small – only a few acres – others have burned out of control over thousands of acres. Learn how you can make simple improvements to your structures and surrounding vegetation to slow down the intensity of a fire once it reaches your property. 

The Michigan landscape evolved with periodic wildland fires that started because of lightning or intentional ignition by Native Americans. Some vegetation types, like jack pine forests and areas of coastal dune grass experienced regular wildfire every 5-50 years. Today, Michigan sees an average of 600 fires annually that are usually ignited accidentally by humans. Over 38 percent of the fires that started in 2014 were due to debris burning piles spreading to neighboring vegetation. 

In a wildland fire situation, vegetation, especially those with resins and oils like pine trees and juniper bushes as well as downed woody debris, are considered fuel because the fire is able to move forward as the vegetation and debris burns. To minimize the forward movement, the fuel must be reduced, well-spaced or eliminated. Creating small breaks in the vegetation around your structures can have the same effect in helping to prevent a wildland fire from causing structural damage. 

A national fire prevention program called Firewise promotes both vegetation management and structural guidelines that help to make individual properties and communities more fire safe in the event of a wildfire. Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have used the guidelines to create Michigan specific materials. Implementing the guidelines helps to lessen fire behavior in vegetation, reduce the ignitability of a structure, and increases the overall safety of firefighters. Most of the guidelines focus on 30 to 100 feet from all structures. The critical distance depends on the characteristics of the surrounding landscape, the prevailing wind direction and the location of the property in proximity to dense forests. Fire tends to burn hotter and faster uphill and when driven by prevailing winds or surrounding fuel load. Increase the distance from structures according to the presence of these conditions. 

Firewise recommends eliminating or spacing ignitable vegetation within this critical distance from structures. Ignitable vegetation includes pine trees, juniper bushes and other trees and shrubs that contain resins and oils. Vegetation that is not removed can be pruned so that the limbs do not touch the ground. Pruning the lower branches to provide spacing under the tree or shrub also helps to prevent leaves and debris from collecting at the base of the vegetation. Leaves and debris will easily ignite if a hot ember lands in it, which in turn will ignite the tree or shrub. Trees and shrubs should be well spaced to eliminate the possibility of fire jumping from tree to tree and eventually heating or igniting the structure. Lastly, trees and shrubs should be removed or pruned so that the branches are not touching the roof of a structure or structural attachments like decks and porches. This is especially important around chimneys and stovepipes. 

Structural Guidelines

The number one cause for the loss of structures in a wildfire event is hot embers that blow out in front of a fire. To reduce the possibility of an ember landing on and igniting a structure, Firewise provides guidelines for roofing material, siding material and structural attachments.

Firewise recommends using class A asphalt shingles, metal, slate or clay tiles to lessen the chance of structural ignition. Clearing rain gutters, eaves and roofs of leaves and debris is also important. Embers also have the potential to collect in small nooks and crannies around the outside of a house, making it important to use heat and flame resistant building materials like brick, cement, plaster, stucco and concrete masonry on the outside of structures. Also, be sure that any attachments like porches, decks or fences are made of flame and heat resistant materials, and that they are kept free of leaves and debris that can collect under and around them. Installing metal screening with a 1/8 inch mesh under decks, over exterior attic vents and under-floor vents will also help with prevention.

It pays to take the time to be proactive about wildland fire. Learn more about how you can make your property more fire safe by attending a presentation on fire prevention by Julie Crick, MSU Natural Resources Extension Educator with over eight years of fire prevention education experience. The presentation will be in Presque Isle County on Thursday, March 26, 2015 from 6-7 p.m. at the Forest Township Hall, located at 9511 M-33/68 in Tower, MI. Contact Brittany Vanderwall with the Presque Isle Conservation District at or at 989-734-4000 to RSVP for this important presentation.

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