Residents urged to prepare

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 19, 2001

State emergency management officials are urging residents to prepare for the onset of a severe fire season this year by creating at least 30 feet "defensible space" -- or an area that has little vegetation -- around their homes.

The simplest way to create defensible space is to mow the lawn regularly. Large, leafy, hardwood trees should be pruned so that the lowest branches are at least 6-10 feet high to prevent a fire on the ground from spreading up to the treetops.

Residents are also being cautioned to prune shrubs and cut back tree branches, especially within 15 feet of a chimney. Within the defensible

space, families should remove flammable plants that contain resins, oils, and waxes that burn readily: palmetto, wax myrtle, yaupon holly, red cedar, and young pine.

Families can also carefully space the trees they plant, and take out "ladder fuels," or vegetation that serves as a link between grass and tree tops. These fuels can carry fire from vegetation to a structure or from a structure to vegetation.

Removing all dead plant material from around a home -- including dead leaves, dry grass, and stacked firewood -- is another top fire prevention action. Fire-resistant vegetation -- plants that are green throughout the year -- also help curb fire damage.

If attachments to homes -- such as decks, porches, or fences -- are not fire-resistant, then the entire home is not.

Fire-wise roof construction materials include Class-A asphalt shingles, metal, cement, and concrete products. Additionally, the inclusion of a

fire-resistant sub-roof adds protection. Making sure that gutters, eaves, and roof are clear of debris can reduce fire threat. Wall materials that resist heat and flames include cement, plaster, stucco, and concrete masonry. Although some vinyl will not burn, during the Florida wildfires of 1998, firefighters found that some vinyl siding melted, allowing embers into the attic space.

Double-pane glass windows can make a home more resistant to wildfire heat and flames.

Families are also urged to post the fire department's number in a visible place. Making evacuation plans ahead of time -- and practicing them as a family -- can also make a life-or-death difference, since fire evacuation may happen with a moment's notice. Residents are urged to plan two escape routes out of the home and two out of the neighborhood.

Residents should identify their homes and neighborhoods with legible and clearly marked street names and numbers so emergency vehicles

can rapidly find the location of a fire. A driveway at least 12 feet wide with a vertical clearance of 15 feet will provide access to emergency apparatus.

Keeping tools -- such as a shovel, rake, handsaw or chainsaw, and a two-gallon-bucket -- can help combat small flare-ups or sparks. But fire officials caution people against using tools they don't know how to operate, or against risking their lives by attempting to fight full-scale fires.

Families should also try to maintain an adequate water source (a challenge when wells are drying up) and to have a plan for their pets.

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