New study highlights lessons learned from Texas wildfire

Bastrop County, Texas wildfire in September 2011. Image courtesy of Texas Forest Service

 A new study that investigated circumstances surrounding last fall’s deadly wildfire in Bastrop County, Texas, shows homeowners need to think beyond 30 ft. of defensible space for optimal protection in a wildfire, Statesman.com reports.

The 165-page Bastrop Complex Wildfire Case Study is only available for review at the Bastrop Public Library and will be available on Bastrop County’s website later this week, according to the Statesman. The Bastrop wildfire, considered the most destructive in Texas history, began on Labor Day weekend 2011, scorched 32,400 acres, destroyed 1,696 homes and claimed two lives. A Texas Forest Service investigation concluded that the likely cause was trees that crashed into overhead power lines.

The study examined lessons learned from the September 2011 wildfire and offered insights about how to best prepare for the next fire.

One major lesson to emerge involves the amount of defensible space, the Statesman reports.  According to report’s principle researcher, 85 percent of 341 homes studied that were destroyed in the fire had defensible space of at least 30 feet.

“This tells me we have to stop telling people 30 feet. We need to push that number out a lot farther,” Karen Ridenour, the principal researcher and author of the study and fire researcher for the Texas Forest Service told the Statesman.  

Best Practices for Wildfires

Best practices embraced by the USDA Forest Service, National Fire Protection Association, International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety – all members of the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition – call for 100 ft. of defensible space or to a home’s property line. In California, the law requires 100 feet of defensible space. Learn more about creating three zones of defensible space.

The report concludes that no matter how much homeowners, firefighters and county officials prepare for such a natural disaster, a bad wildfire in so-called wildland urban interfaces — areas where people live in wildlands such as forests — will do major damage, according to the Statesman.

Many of the Bastrop homes were built from masonry and had roofs made of asphalt and metal — which are not typically considered combustible, Ridenour said. Of the 341 destroyed homes studied in the report, 80 percent of them had masonry construction, 84 percent had asphalt roofing, and 83 percent had metal roofing.

“That tells me it wasn’t the roof but the accumulation of debris in the valleys and leaves in the gutters” that probably led to the homes’ destruction, Ridenour said.

It’s Not Just One Thing

Another “best practice” embraced by the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition is proper maintenance to clear debris out of gutters and off the roof.

“It’s not just one thing that will enable a property to perform better in a wildfire,” says Dr. Steve Quarles, senior scientist and wildfire expert at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. Homeowners should use a combination of actions, including using non-combustible building materials, maintaining vegetation and removing debris from vulnerable areas, and creating the proper amount of defensible space.

Ridenour told the Statesman “it’s the ‘little things’ that homeowners overlook that put them in jeopardy.”

“It’s the bush that is too close to a window and compromises that window, (then) flames or heat break the window, and you will have embers going into the house. It’s debris in the gutters and the straw mat heated by embers that will catch a house on fire,” Ridenour said.

Researchers also looked at other factors that may have contributed to the destruction, such as the dates homes were built, topography and weather.

Of destroyed homes studied in the report, 34 were built in the 1970s, 116 in the 1980s, 103 in the 1990s, and 67 in the 2000s.

Ridenour said home maintenance is key but that it takes a collaborative effort in a neighborhood to reduce the risks of fires.

Learn more about creating a Fire Adapted Community at fireadapted.org and find specific guidance for retrofitting your home for wildfire conditions at disastersafety.org/wildfire. Watch video of a wildfire in action inside in the IBHS Research Center. 

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