Fire official: Kingsbury ripe for devastating forest fire: Homeowners get advice on creating defensible space |

Fire official: Kingsbury ripe for devastating forest fire: Homeowners get advice on creating defensible space

Susan Wood
Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Mark Novak, left, talks with Kris and Gil Ferdon about defensible space around their upper Kingsbury Grade home Thursday. The Ferdon house will be used as a demonstration project for fire prevention. (Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune)

STATELINE — Gil Ferdon’s grandmother told him she could see Lake Tahoe and beyond to the North Shore from the lower level of his upper Kingsbury Grade home a few decades ago.

Today, it seems practically impossible that the Ferdons would be able to see the lake through the trees from their Benjamin Avenue home built in 1964.

“Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t have high-rise trees, so we didn’t have to worry,” Ferdon said Thursday, while overlooking his property, selected as a demonstration project for defensible space measures by the Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District last month – two weeks before the devastating Angora fire that claimed 254 homes. Tahoe Douglas Battalion Chief Mark Novak and Fire Marshal Rick Nicholson evaluated the property’s ability to withstand a fire.

“No one lives on the mountain who doesn’t recognize the potential danger,” Ferdon added.

Lodgepole and Jeffery pines have sprouted up and grown a few stories high. And more shrubs have grown in the understory. Firefighters want to keep fire on the ground. Fire can climb to at least four times the height of the tree or other vegetation.

It’s this “ladder” effect, in which wildland fire climbs from one combustible source to another, that concerns Gil and Kris Ferdon as well as fire officials trying to save homes.

“With these conditions, if something burns at Lower Kingsbury, 250 homes will seem like nothing compared to thousands (here),” Nicholson said.

Novak estimated that only about 30 percent of the 4,500 homes in his district have adequate defensible space. Novak warned the district will start to enforce the guidelines in a few years. Right now it’s all about education to get property owners on board.

Even after the Ferdons conducted some work like tree-limb trimming, planting grass and keeping the wood pile away from the house, suggestions from the veteran firefighters were plentiful for the home sitting near the top of a steep grade. Fire burns 13 times faster up hill.

First, the wood roof has to come off. They’re banned in the fire district.

“Wood roofs are 50 percent more likely to burn in a wildland fire,” Novak said.

The Ferdons scheduled a Monday appointment with the roofers – a $14,000 expense. On average, most homeowners will spend between $200 to $1,000 on defensible space measures.

Next, all combustibles must be removed within 5 feet of the house. Between 5 and 30 feet, fuels must be reduced substantially. Here lies the debate on a perceived conflict with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s best management practices, which to control erosion on lots advocates the use of pine needles and wood chips to trap stormwater on property.

“Thin layers are not as bad. But the challenge is how to rake to 2 inches (of wood chips and pine needles),” Novak said.

Trees need to be trimmed to within 10 feet of a structure, roof or chimney.

“Embers can get caught in these timbers,” he said, referring to the wood blocks holding up the steep landscaping ground cover.

From 30 to 100 feet, the crew of three firefighters will cut into the prolific shrubs and bushes to create 4-foot islands with space between them. The continuity of the manzanita behind the Ferdons’ house is of concern, and the firefighters want to break it up.

Then, the huckleberry oak has got to go, Novak pointed out.

“We call this gasoline bush,” he said.

At the house, Novak noticed wood objects stuffed in the space under the deck – which he recommends people seal off with a screened mesh so embers can’t burn a house “from the inside out.”

And if trees are coming down, it’s better to select the more flammable lodgepole pines and white firs rather than the Jeffery pines, the latter being more fire resistant when they grow large.

“You don’t have to mow down every tree,” Novak said.

Nicholson said trees under 6 inches in diameter can be cut for safety purposes.

When the debris is cut down or cleared, the fire district offers curbside chipping if it’s piled at the roadside.

Novak summed up the immediate priorities to make the community more fire resistant:

— Create buffer around the community.

— Improve access in and out of the community.

— Make fuel modifications on parcels.

— Change construction materials to less flammable items.

(breakout) Rancho Santa Fe going fire resistant

The San Diego County community has a goal of making their homes so “resistant to ignition” that property owners will feel safer staying in their homes, Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District Fire Marshall Cliff Hunter pointed out.

Measures include: landscaping reviews, annual inspections, removal of all dead and dying trees within 100 feet of a home, increase of fireflows, use of resistant structural materials and the widening of all streets to 24 feet.

“It’s a choice for homeowners (to stay),” Hunter said.

During the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, some of the 25 people who died perished in their vehicles trying to leave the fire zone. More than 2,400 homes were destroyed.

“We tell people, if they leave, leave early,” he said.

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