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From the June 2013 Battle Mountain News

posted Jul 6, 2014, 4:35 PM by Joe Christy

When to Defend Your Home, When to Flee

Recently I saw some three videos that got me thinking about how different people are from their homes when fire comes.

The oldest was TV footage showing a grief stricken resident of the Oakland Hills being interviewed, close behind the fire line during the 1991 firestorm, about loosing her home. She keeps turning away from the camera as wind gusts come through, then turning back after they pass. She's avoiding the flurries of embers carried on the wind. It's annoying enough for her to avert her face, but not enough to to drive her from the scene.

The other two were experiments by US Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen.

The first is of a house in a wind tunnel. There are no flames, just a blizzard of embers resembling the TV footage from Oakland. The house looks pretty much like any house in Bonny Doon, right down to the pine needles in the rain gutters and on the roof. In about as long as the Oakland Hills interview, around 70 seconds, the needles catch fire, then the eaves and roof, until the entire house is ablaze.

Embers are irritating to people, and fatal to unmaintained structures.

The third is of a house in the Yukon freshly built for the experiment, with some dummies in protective fire clothing nearby. The video cuts to an aerial view of the 5 acre test patch of dry, mature pine forest being being consumed by fire. Again, though the house is up to fire code, it's nothing special, plywood walls, single pane windows and a standard roof, but there are no gutters, no litter on the roof, and no landscaping. In about 70 seconds, the flame front races through. The camera cuts back to Cohen returning to examine the site and read the recordings from the dummies. The house is standing, not much the worst for wear, and the protective clothing is unscathed. Cohen discovers that the temperature at the dummies has reached 1400°.

1400° will kill a person in about 5 seconds, but it takes 23 minutes to ignite a wood frame structure with radiant heat at that temperature.

The lesson is clear: The time and technique to defend your home is to make sure that the gutters and roof are clean, your landscaping low and green, long before the ember blizzard ahead of a wildfire reaches your house. In those few minutes after the onset of the embers, wouldn't you rather be gathering your children, animals, and family photos then getting away than climbing a ladder to clean your roof? When the flame front sweeps through, you need to be far away. A Fire Safe home will survive, but you won't.


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