Fuel breaks offer false sense of security

FUEL BREAK While a fuel break helps firefighters control an advancing wildfire, wind-driven embers can still travel to the other side.

By Dwight Good

Editor’s note: This is the next installment in a series of articles on wildfire preparation.

There has been a lot of effort put into the creation of fuel breaks around high fire hazard communities. Fuel breaks are usually a strip of land where flammable vegetation has been removed and less hazardous vegetation has been retained or planted. Fuel breaks vary in width, ranging from 30 feet or less to more than 100 feet. 

Surprising to many people, the primary purpose of a fuel break is not necessarily to stop an oncoming fire. Typically, fuel breaks are created to improve the ability of firefighters to control an advancing wildfire. A fuel break can reduce fire intensity, provide an area to light a backfire, improve access for firefighters, and improve the effectiveness of fire retardants dropped from aircraft.

Unfortunately, fuel breaks can also provide a false sense of security. Some homeowners assume that once the fuel break is created, they are fire safe and that no further action on their part is required. This is not true. Wind-driven embers can be transported over the fuel break and ignite new fires on the other side. Homes that have not prepared for the ember threat are vulnerable despite the presence of the fuel break. 

While community-level fuel breaks are important in reducing the wildfire threat, they are not enough. Homeowners must continue to do their part by creating defensible space around their home and making their properties resistant to ignition from embers.

Will your home survive when the embers arrive? Wind-driven embers ignite many of the homes destroyed by wildfire. Your home could be at risk! Make changes now to reduce the ember threat to your home. Clean out debris from under your deck, and move woodpiles away from your house.  

Most people believe that wildfires ignite homes through direct contact with flames, but it is rare to have a home ignite this way. Flaming brands and embers can travel a mile or more ahead of the active front of a wildfire and up to 60 percent of wildland/urban interface home ignitions result from embers.

The Ember Aware campaign is intended to educate people on the risks of ember cast and the actions they can take to reduce those risks, to encourage residents to harden their homes against embers and/or to maintain those ember-resistant features, and to practice ember-safe housekeeping and landscaping. You can learn more at www.emberaware.com.

Fire Marshal Dwight Good, MS, EFO, serves the Morgan Hill Fire Department, South Santa Clara County Fire Protection District and CAL FIRE Santa Clara Unit. He has 24 years of fire service experience. For questions or comments, email [email protected] or call (408) 310-4654.