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Wildfire seminar: if you weren't there, you won't be prepared!

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Ember Zone. Wildland Urban Interface. Defensible Space. Hardened Home.
Don't know what these phrases mean?

That means you didn't take advantage of the Wildfire Preparedness Seminar hosted by Bandera County and Kendall County Fire Marshall's departments, assisted by the Texas Forest Service and local volunteer fire departments and emergency agencies.

The well-attended seminar was held at the Flying L Guest Ranch Tuesday, March 20.

Bandera County Fire Marshal John Stith welcomed all of the guests by referencing the record number of wildfires that burned four million acres across Texas last summer. "The difference between those places that burned and us - we were lucky," said Stith.

Stith, County Extension Agent Sam Womble, and Texas Forest Service (TFS) reps Patrick Allen, Jerry Williams and Gary Barney presented a comprehensive program outlining how to develop a personal wildfire action plan for rural and urban areas.

Photos presented by Stith and Allen demonstrated just how similar Bandera County looks to many of last summer's wildfire sites.

"Lakehills and the Wharton's Dock area have one-way-in, one-way-out," said Stith. "The conditions are there for a catastrophic event."

Womble shared several Extension Service websites for people to get more information about preparing their property and families for disasters. The Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), and the AgriLife bookstore both provide helpful guidance. Books and publications can be ordered from the online bookstore, "or stop by the office at Mansfield Park for free copies," said Womble.

Allen explained that since 2006, the National Weather Service has become adept at spotting and predicting what is now called the South Plains Outbreak Pattern (SPOP), a period of very low humidity and extremely high temperatures that can lead to numerous wildfires. "They can now issue Red Flag warnings days in advance," he said.

Get out of ember zone
Allen pointed out that with a wildfire, "you can't be aggressive at the head of the fire, which moves six miles an hour or faster (the length of two football fields per minute).

You have to evacuate and work at the rear of the fire." Allen advised evacuating up to 20 miles ahead of the fire. If the state goes into SPOP, "about the only way to put out the fire is with a change in the weather."

Embers the size of a quarter or larger can fly up to two miles from the front of a wildfire. That creates what he referred to as the "Ember Zone."

The Wildland Urban Interface occurs when rural land butts up against the city limits. Thick grasses, dead wood and juniper form a heavy fuel load.

Homes within such settings need to be "hardened," and placed within a "defensible space."

"Do what you can to prepare in advance," advised Allen.

He suggested regularly removing leaf litter from house gutters, enclosing the bases of decks and storing firewood away from houses, trees, wooden fences and propane tanks.
Sidewalks and driveways can be used a firebreaks.

In more rural settings, Allen said water staging (storage of water in tanks) can be useful. "Check your fencing," he said. "Wooden fences and posts burn and the livestock gets out." He also suggested that ranchers be able to identify their livestock should they escape or have to be evacuated.

The state forest service, along with the US Forest Service and International Fire Chiefs Association have developed the Ready, Set, Go personal wildfire action plan, as well as the Fire Safe Communities plan. Both are available online or from your local volunteer fire department.

More helpful tips

Stith urged landowners to learn about prescribed burning for brush management. "Getting rid of the fuel load in the pastures is a good thing," he said. He also recommended that people email him at BanderaFM@Indian-Creek.net and he will then do mass emails to let residents know when burn bans are off or on in the county.

Property entrances should be clearly marked with the address so that emergency vehicles can reach the right location without delay. "It's not good when we're driving an ambulance down dark country roads and can't find an address," said one EMT.

Stith advised people to call the Bandera County Sheriff's Office if they are planning to burn brush piles, to avoid sending out emergency crews when it is not necessary. "You should also give the BCSO your gate code for their files," suggested Stith.

He also urged ranchers to communicate with their local volunteer fire department about structures on the property and possible sources of water.

"We're about empowering [the residents] to take care of themselves," he added.

Stith offered to meet with homeowner's associations and any other interested groups to share information about wildfire preparedness. Call his office at 830-460-8183.

Also present for the seminar were representatives from all of the county's volunteer fire departments, Bandera County EMS, the Community Emergency Response Team, county officials and law enforcement officers, and the Bandera County Emergency Management office.

Pictured: Top- Photo by Carolyn B. Edwards
Aaron Stapleton and Greg Grothues represented the Medina Lake Volunteer Fire Department at the Wildfire Preparedness Seminar Tuesday, March 20 at the Flying L Guest Ranch.

Bottom- Photo by Carolyn B. Edwards
LaQuitta Frenzel, Vanessa Bernal and Phyllis Tillotson with Emergency Management, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) had lots of helpful information to hand out at their booth at the Wildfire Preparedness Seminar Tuesday, March 20 at the Flying L Guest Ranch.