Defensible Space

"A designated area around your home (farm) that is intentionally maintained so as to be free of any features that would tend to increase the risk of damage from wildfires".


There are few things that mean as much to me as learning about horses.  One of them is wildland firefighting: especially the urban interface, or "I Zone" as most firefighting types call it. This is the area where wildfires meet homes, farms and families and where wildland firefighting forces interface with the engines, tankers, pumpers and personnel of organized fire departments. 


Most of my experiences with wildfire and its affects on the landscape are from Colorado, a well known fire regime.  I've learned about the dynamics of fuels, how winds impact the flames, how to fight fire with limited water, and how the land and lives affected by wildfire try to heal and recover.  My first thoughts after Maine's '98 ice storm were for the potential fire fuels that were gathering in our backyards and surrounding woods.  Here in Maine I tend to think of our interface as the "Rurban Zone".  The area where rural meets the urban.  Unlike the areas of the Rockies where I've studied, we're not living in a fire regime.  Here in Maine we're used to the hazards of blizzards, ice and snowstorms, not heat, excessive dryness and firestorms. 


The famous Maine Fires of 1947 were fueled in part by the leftover dry tinder of the devastating Hurricane of 1936.  Stored fuels from the hurricane, though somewhat decayed, were still available when the fires struck 11 years later.  Maine's current fire fuel load from the Ice Storm of '98 has much more stored fuel capacity than fuels that have partially decayed.  What's also disturbing, is that most of these stored fuels are in Maine's more populated areas.  As we're experiencing this year, fire dangers can become extreme: with or without added fuels from the Ice Storm.


While most of us worry about the price of hay in a time of drought there is also the need to consider establishing a few defenses against possible fire. Are we as prepared as we can be to protect our farm and horses?  Does your boarding stable have an evacuation plan in the event that a large fire gets started in the area?  The concept of Defensible Space is used in many fire regimes to help educate property owners about the dangers of wildfire.  In Maine, we can incorporate many of these ideas into our own fire hazard reduction programs.


Impacts for wildfire differ somewhat from structure fires, but many attributes are the same. Knowing how these attributes impact wildfire, or any sort of fire, will help property owners ensure their defensible space.  Impacts include: Roofing, Exterior Walls, Vegetation, Slope of the land, Accessibility of the location, and Access to water.



Stay away from old-fashioned wood shingles or shakes. Consider asphalt, fiberglass, concrete tile, clay tile, metal or other noncombustible roof coverings.  Keep rain-gutters cleaned out.  Cut back tree limbs that overhang your roof.  Have the chimney to your home cleaned at least once a year.


Exterior Walls:

Use alternatives to wood or other combustible wall materials, such as brick, stone, or metal. If you chose wood siding, increase the defensible space around your buildings to compensate.  Be sure to screen off crawl spaces and open areas under decks, porches, and landings.



Remove the dead lower branches on trees and other "ladder fuels" which can spread fire.  Cluster trees so there are gaps in the tree canopies overhead.  Remove overgrown grasses and bushes from within 30 feet of your home and other buildings. Do not allow combustibles of any sort (including firewood!) under porches, decks and crawl spaces.


Slope of the Land:

Wildfires "run" up slopes and gullies called "chimneys". Increase the size of defensible space around your property as the steepness of slope increases.  Wood piles and other combustibles should not be located down slope from or near your home.  Ask your local fire department to point out likely "fire runs" on your property.


Accessibility of your location:

Provide "quick access" for large fire apparatus, including a wide driveway, turnarounds, fire breaks and other defensible modifications as needed for your location.  Keep these areas free from parked or unusable equipment.  Have visible your farm name or an address sign for your 911 location.  Have written directions to your location posted at your phone so that accurate directions can be quickly given in the event of an emergency. 


Access to water:

Initially, many fire departments have available only the amount of water they can carry on their trucks.  Household water is limited and often unavailable after electrical power is lost.  If a substantial water source is not handy consider the installation of a hydrant or cistern for water storage. Consult your fire department about installation so that it is usable and make sure that they know it is available. 


The fire hazard reduction program for your farm should automatically include well-maintained and accessible fire extinguishers. (ABC type) Though actual firefighting is better left to professionals, garden hoses that reach all ends of your "defensible space" are a good idea.  Many fire fighting supply companies also sell foaming products in handy sized containers that instantly attach to your garden hose.  Foaming agents store easily and substantially multiply the cooling and smothering effects of water.  They can also be used to quickly add a protective layer of anti-fire insulating foam to your buildings.


An evacuation plan is also essential.  Discuss with your family and staff how to proceed in the event of a fire.  If you attempt to save horses, how would you do this?  Do you have enough blindfolds (long sleeved shirts work great), solid halters and leadlines available for all the horses?  Have you and your staff practiced emergency evacuation drills with your horses?  If you can get them safely out of the barn what will you do with them?  Most horses will need to be securely tied or they will run back to their "known safe haven", even though its burning.  In the event of an approaching wildfire would enough trucks and trailers be available to evacuate your horses to safer areas?  These are all plans we hope we never have to utilize, but in the event fire, whether a single farm structure fire or substantial wildfire, knowing how you will handle these situations will save precious time and property.


I personally feel the most important fire hazard reduction activity a property owner can do is invite their local fire department to tour their farm.  At Central Maine Fire Attack School a few weeks ago many firefighters commented on the need to better know the layouts of the farms in their towns.  Ask your fire department to identify any potential obstacles to their ability to effectively fight a fire on your property.  Knowing what traffic patterns and available water resources exist on your farm is important information to firefighters.  The more they know concerning your farm and its layout, especially the building patterns, and where hay, equipment, fuels, and animals are routinely kept, will help firefighters better prepare for an emergency.  Valuable strategic planning takes place in the minds firefighters while "on route" to a call.  Giving firefighters every possible strategic advantage before a fire strikes, will help save your property from irreplaceable economic and personal losses.


Written by: Vicki Schmidt, July 1999

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