October 22, 2008

Expert to help create wildfire protection plans

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- You see a lovely cedar home in the woods with rustic shake shingles and an expansive deck. Charles M. Ruffner sees fuel. In Southern Illinois, where cabins, cottages and entire subdivisions regularly sprout among groves of aging trees, he sees a lot of it.

A fire ecologist from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Ruffner worries particularly about the potential fire hazard this fuel presents for Makanda, Murphysboro and Pomona townships in Jackson County.

“These areas have a lot of oak forest, which burns easily, along with fairly high shrub and cedar components, also very flammable, juxtaposed with wooden houses, wooden decks and propane tanks,” Ruffner said.

“If -- God forbid that should ever happen -- a big fire got started and these natural and structural fuels came together on the west side of Carbondale, it could probably burn right to (U.S. Highway) 51.”

Hoping to keep a lid on the tinderbox, Ruffner has obtained a $61,000 federal grant to assist in drawing up individual community wildfire protection plans for the three townships, a project that ultimately will involve not just private landowners, rural fire departments and local government officials, but state and national agencies as well. Community participation, however, is the linchpin.

“The idea is that the community assesses its risk for wildfire and develops a plan by which those risks will be mitigated,” Ruffner said.

The townships’ wildfire risk has risen over the last several decades as more people set up housekeeping in the woods.

“It’s a prime example of what we call the ‘wildland-urban interface’ -- the juxtaposition of wild vegetative areas, often part of fire-dependent ecosystems, close to residential areas,” Ruffner said.

“With more houses in natural settings, we must be cognizant of the condition of fuels across the landscape when conducting management treatments. With the lack of periodic fires to rid forests of leaf litter, weeds, shrubs and elderly or dead trees creating more fuel, flames set off by chance sparks -- or people -- burn faster, hotter and more destructively.”

Recognizing the growing threat of such interfaces, especially out West, the federal government enacted the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in 2003 with an eye toward not just reducing the number of catastrophic fires but enhancing woodland ecosystems as well. The act provides, among other things, financial help to communities interested in reducing dense brush and other undergrowth through thinning or prescribed burns once they have protection plans in place.

Plans for the three townships will include maps that identify residential areas as well as escape routes, water supplies and power and communication lines potentially at risk should fire break out. In evaluating where the greatest risks lie, Ruffner’s community teams will look at existing vegetation, study historical data on wildfire outbreaks, assess the vulnerability of human structures and other areas of community importance and analyze both firefighting capacity and emergency preparedness measures. The final component will include recommendations on reducing fire risks.

“It might say that a certain number of acres should be thinned, this area needs prescribed burns, that area needs additional access or water points,” Ruffner said.

There’s also an educational aspect.

“One of the basic objectives will be for vulnerable homeowners to be ‘firewise,’ to have defensible spaces around their houses and to limit the amount of vegetation close to them --nothing closer than 25 to 30 feet,” Ruffner said.

Ruffner anticipates getting the project off the ground in the next month or so. In the meantime, given that autumn is prime fire season in Southern Illinois, anyone who lives in the woods might want to visit www.firewise.org. The site contains tips for cutting the risks of fire breaking out on residential property and a virtual tour of a firewise house.