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Home inspectors provide residents with fire protection strategy

Residents living in forested areas served by the Spokane Valley Fire Department and Spokane County Fire District 8 can expect to get a knock on their door this summer asking them to participate in a wildfire evaluation.

The two agencies teamed to hire wildland fire inspector Phil Hayes to help homeowners in what is known as the wildland/urban interface areas, such as the Ponderosa and Painted Hills neighborhoods, to prepare their homes for fire danger.

Hayes said he plans to visit 1,500 homes. “We’re trying to be proactive,” he said.

The evaluations are voluntary, but Hayes said he’s only had two homeowners turn him down so far. “One was kind of nice about it; the other one wasn’t,” he said.

Hayes and Mitch Metzger, a division chief for Fire District 8, spent an hour this week evaluating the Painted Hills home of Pat Munts, a Master Gardener who writes a garden column every week for The Spokesman-Review. Munts gave the two a tour of her property while they offered suggestions for improvements to help protect her home from a fire.

Hayes was pleased to see that her address was clearly visible. “The assessment starts on the driveway,” he said. “You’ve got a number posted.”

“But it’s on a flammable pole,” Munts said. Metzger said that didn’t really matter. “If we have an event that catches that post on fire, it’s going to be a bad day anyway,” he said.

A clearly marked address, preferably with reflective paint or lettering, helps firefighters locate homes more easily. Metzger suggested that Munts trim back the branches of a couple trees lining her long driveway. “Think about a big (fire) truck driving down,” he said.

Hayes pointed to some small fallen trees along the driveway that lay on the ground near trees with branches going all the way down to the ground. “This is a good example of ladder fuels,” he said. If a fire is on the ground, it can literally move up into trees like climbing up a ladder. A ground fire is generally less destructive, so Hayes recommended trimming all tree branches within 6 feet of the ground to prevent fire from getting up into the trees.

Munts’ house is surrounded by ponderosa pine trees, but close to the house are fruit trees that are more flame resistant. “We designed it so there’s a minimum of plant material next to the house,” she said.

Hayes said they had done a good job of that, except for some highly flammable juniper bushes in the backyard within 30 feet of the house. “You don’t need to have a clear-cut around your house,” he said. “You can have landscaping.”

They didn’t object to a woodpile next to a large pile of pine needles because the piles were well away from the house. “You’ve got it so far away from your structures,” Metzger said.

They were pleased to see rock in the flower beds rather than bark and a clean roof on the house. People should always keep their gutters and roof clean of pine needles, leaves and other debris that could burn easily, Metzger said, because if a roof catches on fire and it gets into the attic, the house is usually a lost cause. “I’ve seen gutters that are actually growing stuff,” he said.

If a fire is approaching people should remove lawn furniture from porches and decks and move larger items, like wooden picnic tables, away from the home. Windows should be closed and people should raise their blinds and move flammable items away from windows. That way if the heat from a fire breaks a window, there won’t be things right inside that could burst into flame.

One thing people should not do is turn on their sprinklers if they are on a city water system, Metzger said. “We’re not going to have any water” if too many people do that, he said. People who have their own well, however, can use their sprinklers.

The two made a few suggestions for improvements. They pointed out a tree too close to the house that should be removed and recommended that old railroad ties used to create raised beds be replaced with stone. “That’s got creosote in it,” said Metzger. “Once it gets enough spark, that’ll go.”

“This is only a recommendation,” Hayes said. “None of this is required. The information doesn’t get passed on to insurance companies.”

Overall Munts got a score of 12 – 10 points for the junipers within 30 feet of the house and two points for having some ladder fuels on the property. “It’s kind of like golf,” Hayes said. “High points are bad. Anything over 20 is red.” Homes that have shake roofs, flammable vegetation next to the house and a long, narrow driveway that makes access difficult can score as high as 35-40.

Metzger cautioned that even if people get an evaluation and make the recommended changes, it doesn’t guarantee that firefighters will be able to save their home in the event of a fire. It will give the house a better shot at surviving, but during a large fire there simply aren’t enough firefighters to go around. “We don’t have enough apparatus to come to every house,” he said.

But Metzger said he saw prevention measures work during the Valleyview Fire in the Dishman Hills area in 2008. “There were houses in the middle of it that survived because of measures that were taken,” he said.