Each spring, homeowners in Calaveras County, Calif., can be seen outside their mountain cabins engaging in a familiar ritual: raking up masses of pine needles and stuffing them into yard-clipping disposal bins.
If they don't clear a 100-foot radius around their homes of flammable material like dead branches, the homeowners face hefty fines. That's because California, like New Mexico, has a history of destructive wildfires. More than 336,000 acres burned in California in 2009.
To address that problem, a 2005 California law requires homeowners to create 100 feet of "defensible space" around structures on their property. Such regulations are usually enacted at a local level, as some Oregon municipalities are doing. But neither Santa Fe County nor Los Alamos County has a defensible space requirement. Both entities recommend, however, that homeowners keep areas within a 30-foot radius of their homes clear of dry, flammable materials.
"The best solution is educating our neighborhood and our communities about what is defensible space, how can you achieve defensible space and what is the rationale for doing so," Santa Fe County Interim Fire Chief David Sperling says. "It's worked fairly successfully so far, so I don't know that there's been any real discussion about putting regulations in place that require defensible space. That would be quite a leap to take, I think."
Sixty-three homes burned in this summer's Las Conchas fire. Since wildfire is a natural part of forests in the Southwest, people who live in homes abutting forested land assume a certain amount of risk no matter what extra precautions they take.
"They love to be in the trees, and I understand that," Bob Parmenter, scientific director at Valles Caldera Preserve, says, adding that his own home is built in a forested area. "It's just that building houses in ponderosa pine forests is not a good idea in general, but it happens a lot in the Southwest."
The Cerro Grande fire, which struck Los Alamos in 2000, hammered home that point. Some of the 239 homes that burned were located just feet away from trees that survived unscathed. The homes were more vulnerable because they were surrounded by flammable debris like pine needles.
"[Homes in Los Alamos] burned from the fire creeping along the pine needles in their lawns," says Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. "It kind of just marched right up to their doorsteps. A homeowner could have stopped that with a leaf rake or a broom."
Santa Fe National Forest Fuels Management Specialist Bill Armstrong says that, although creating defensible space saves structures, regulations are only as good as the municipality's willingness to enforce them. Sperling says enforcement would be very difficult, and instead, the county Fire Department sends staff out to residential neighborhoods that border wilderness areas to see whether homeowners are complying with the 30-foot recommendation. The county also has some requirements for fire-resistant construction materials in moderate and high-risk fire areas.
Ingalsbee says the low number of homes that burned in Las Conchas compared to Cerro Grande suggests homeowners are taking care of their properties without being compelled to.
"It's remarkable, in those megafires last summer, that very few homes were burned down in New Mexico…I don't think firefighters alone could have done that," Ingalsbee says.
Another explanation for the relatively low rate of home destruction is that much of the Las Conchas fire burned in uninhabited areas, and areas that burned previously during Cerro Grande were somewhat protected because much of the fire fuel near their homes had already been burned.
According to 2006 research by the US Department of Agriculture, communities that have experienced wildfire devastation firsthand are more inclined to cooperate with defensible space regulations or recommendations. The study also finds that regulations work best in conjunction with public outreach about wildfire risks, such as a jingle created by the State of California that, while rhyming "loss" with "property costs," reminds homeowners to clear the land around their homes.
"What we find is that people who take the time to clean up around their houses and to create some form of defensible space are helping us in protecting their property," Sperling says. "If anything is evident over the last year with the wildfires throughout the Southwest, it's that people need to take the possibilities of wildland fire seriously."