Late each year, the Santa Ana winds sweep across California and wreak havoc where wildfires already burn amidst heavily populated canyons and hills. News broadcasts show vivid fire imagery, often of flames burning through dry brush and invading residential neighborhoods.
The aftermath? Homes and vehicles reduced to skeletal rubble, lives changed forever.
For many Maine residents watching the TV news or Internet videos, fleeing a California wildlife is unimaginable. So is fleeing a Maine wildfire, of course, because Maine could not possibly suffer fires as widespread as California’s, right?
Wrong. In 1825 — and granted that’s a long time ago — the so-called “Miramichi Fire” raged across Maine and New Brunswick, burned 3 million acres, and killed 160 people. Both figures are impressive; if the fire had burned solely in Maine, about 14 percent of the state’s land mass would have been consumed.
And many Maine residents still remember autumn 1947, when wildfires burned in different sections of the state and ultimately killed 16 people, consumed 175,000 acres, and destroyed 1,248 homes (including 397 seasonal dwellings). At isolated spots on Mount Desert Island, the fire’s fury remains evident in empty cellars and blackened tree stumps.
So wildfires can still destroy businesses and homes in Maine, although superb fire-suppression efforts usually save property. The Maine Forest Service Forest Protection Division urges property owners to take steps to protect buildings against potential wildfire damage, and as Maine residents build more homes in thick forests, the fire danger increases.
According to the Maine Forest Service, “one area of recent concern is the increasing amount of Wildland Urban Interface throughout the state of Maine.” The MFS defines WUI as “‘the area where homes meet the forest,’” thus placing such homes “at risk from wildfire.
“As Maine communities grow, the threat of a fire in the Wildland Urban Interface increases as well,” according to the MFS. “Fires in the WUI can originate in the forests and threaten homes or start as structural fires and threaten the forests.
“Each year hundreds of people build their dream homes away from the city. These homes are tucked in the woods or abut picturesque wild land. Unfortunately, in all their serene beauty, these homes may be vulnerable to wildfire,” the MFS reports.
To help property owners protect buildings against wildfire damage, the Maine Forest Service recommends these steps, among others:
• Pile firewood away from buildings;
• Remove leaves and pine needles from gutters and roofs;
• Because high temperatures quickly melt vinyl, install metal gutters and downspouts;
• Use fire-resistant roofing materials (Class A shingles or metal) rather than flammable materials, such as cedar shakes;
• Extend the lawn to a minimal 30 feet around a building;
• Trim tree branches that overhang a house — and especially remove limbs that touch a building anywhere;
• Trim tree branches back at least 20 feet from every chimney;
• Trim coniferous trees growing near buildings;
• Prune trees and branches along a driveway to provide a 12-foot width and a 14-foot overhead clearance for fire engines;
• Meet with a local fire-department representative or forest ranger to determine a building’s “defensible space,” the optimal distance at which trees and brush should be removed to lessen fire danger;
• Remove all dead tree and plant growth and thick brush from within the defensible space;
• Relocate conifer shrubs outside the defensible space. Replace these shrubs with “low-flammable plants,” the MFS recommends;
• Place reflective street numbers on the house so they can be seen from the street. These numbers should be at least 4 inches high. Place similar numbers on a roadside mailbox;
• Place a hose on a rack and attach the house to an outside faucet. The Maine Forest Service recommends installing at least a 100-foot hose;
• Compost leaves. Don’t burn them;
• Install fire extinguishers in a garage and kitchen, two areas where household fires often start;
• Enclose a deck, especially its sides, so that natural debris cannot collect beneath it and become a fire fuel source.
Don’t let the warm breezes and temps of early March 2012 lull anyone into believing that property-damaging wildfires cannot happen in Maine. If the spring weather turns dry, moisture-starved fields and woods could quickly become tinder dry, and spring winds could hurl a wildfire at high speed across the landscape.
For more information about protecting property located in a Wildland Urban Interface, log onto http://www.maine.gov/doc/mfs/fpd/pages/wui/wui.html.