Mississippians can see footage of the West’s wildfires nearly every day, but many could be surprised to learn that their own state averages more than 600 wildfires a year. With urban sprawl infringing on the state’s forests, the fire risk is growing.
"Wildfires don’t get much attention here because we aren’t impacted like people who live in the West," said Bob Brzuszek, associate professor of landscape architecture at Mississippi State University. "Our climate is more humid, we have a great fire service, and our wildfires tend to happen in more rural areas."
Homeowners living in or near wooded areas can landscape carefully to reduce the danger posed by wildfire. Taking steps to create "defensible space," or the area between the home and an approaching fire, is critical. Defensible space is especially important in late winter and early spring when humidity is below 30 percent, winds are high and vegetation is brown.
Brzuszek said there are three zones of defensible space—30 feet, 50 feet and 100 feet. A home should be immediately surrounded by at least 30 feet of healthy, well-watered plants and grass, no dead vegetation and little to no flammable material. Trees should be thinned and the understory reduced in the area that is within 50 feet to 100 feet of the home. Maintaining this space helps slow down an approaching fire and can reduce the amount of damage a fire causes if it reaches the home. The more at risk the home is the more defensible space it should have.
Defensible space also allows fire trucks and other emergency equipment to access the home.
"If a homeowner has not taken steps to ensure there is adequate defensible space around a home, firefighting personnel will not be able to defend that home," said Don Bales, forestry specialist with MSU’s Extension Service. "They are not even going to try. They cannot risk the lives of the firefighting personnel for a home they cannot successfully defend."
Fire breaks, an area of non-flammable material, can be used as further protection.
"Some people disk up the earth around their homes to create a fire break," Brzuszek said. "But placing a driveway, sidewalk or drainage system between the wooded property and the house can work, too."
Bales said homeowners should assess the materials used on and around the house.
"The recommended mulch is lava rock or other non-combustible materials," Bales said. "However, with proper planning and attention, even pine straw or wood fiber mulch can be safe if soaker hoses keep the material moist during periods of low humidity."
Using natural materials on the home, such as wooden siding, is acceptable if the proper precautions are taken.
"A house that has a neat, clean landscape with 30 feet of defensible space and proper attention given to a 100-foot home ignition zone will be much less likely to suffer fire damage," Bales said.
No home is completely safe from the threat of fire.
"Anything organic can burn," Brzuszek said. "It’s hard to be 100 percent safe, but there are steps to take to reduce the threat. The goal is to minimize the damage."
Open burning is a frequent cause of unwanted fires. Brzuszek said burning in an approved barrel and composting yard waste are safer alternatives. Foresters can conduct prescribed burns for homeowners for a fee.
"Fire is a natural part of the Mississippi landscape. Fire helps keep the ecosystem healthy, helps ensure there is enough food for wildlife, and reduces the fuel load in our forests," Brzuszek said. "Fires are only bad when they negatively affect people and their property. Safe, prescribed burning helps to reduce those kinds of fires."
Local fire officials will conduct safety evaluations for homeowners who request the service. For more information on reducing the risk of fire around the home, visit the local Extension office. Mississippi follows the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities Program. Information on the program can be accessed at www.firewise.org.