Human attention means fire prevention: Tips to stop human-caused fires

Cheat Grass on BLM Land | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News
Sparks from Dragging Trailer Chains Start Fires | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News
Sparks from Dragging Trailer Chains Start Fires | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH – As St. George News reported recently, fires attributed to human causes are at an abnormally high incidence this 2011 year, and more are breaking faster than news of each can be reported.

Human caused fires are any fires that result from something other than natural causes, the most common natural cause being lightning. There have been no lightning strikes in Southern Utah in past weeks, said Nick Howell, Public Information Officer with Bureau of Land Management Color Country and Fire Investigator.

Southern Utah has not seen this much cheatgrass in a few years, Howell said. There was a lot in 2004 and 2006, but it was much less in 2009 and 2010.

Counties north of Washington County are only now beginning to dry out and the region is going to be in big trouble, Howell predicts, if something isn’t done.

Here are some practical tips, some quite obvious some less so, which can substantially reduce the onslaught of fires through the remainder of this year’s fire season.

1.  Defensible space around homes.  Any community near the Interstate 15 corridor, within the urban interface, in highly vegetated areas, is considered a high-risk community for fire.

The BLM Color Country Interagency Fire Management Center works with these communities to develop fire councils, which are supported by federal and state governments, to establish fire protection plans.  A large part of that is encouraging people to do vegetation clearing around their homes. This is called “defensible space” and if homeowners and residents have a defensible space in place the chances of the home surviging a wildland fire increases.

In Southern Utah, 30 feet is the minimum defensible space required in high-risk communities, but 100 feet is optimal if possible; (in Southern California where wildfires are an unfortunate but expected norm, the defensible space clearing requirements can extend as much as 200 feet).

2.  Vehicle related fires / chains and tie downs.  A lot of the human caused fires in Color Country this year have been vehicle related; sparks from catalytic converters, people dragging vehicle chains as they are pulling trailers, boats, all-terrain vehicles, among others.

“Sometimes it’s the chain touching the ground that creates the spark,” Howell said.  “If people would check the chain length when they hook the chain up to the vehicle, and lock the chain around the hitch so it doesn’t drag and hit the ground, those (fire starts can be avoided).”

Similarly, chains for tying down equipment in transport often are too long or come loose and drag, creating the spark that ignites the fire.

3.  Abandoned campfires.  There was a fire mid-June at the Baker Reservoir, Howell said, which resulted because the campers left their campfire without it being fully extinguished.  Campfires, even if they appear to be out, should be cold to the touch before leaving them – stir the dirt with water until it is cold.

4.  Recreational target shooting and explosive targets.  Although not one of the major fire causes, Howell said target shooting can start fires on occasion.

“In fact,” he said, “we have had one target shooting related fire this year and two last year.

“The message I would like to send is to be aware of your surroundings when enjoying target shooting activities and avoid areas of problematic cheatgrass.  There are also explosive targets available at local retailers that are known to start fires.  These legal and explosive targets are made up of chemicals that are relatively safe in nature but when mixed with gasoline and other chemicals to complete the explosive reaction when impacted by the velocity of a bullet, these can create fire hazards under the right conditions (in cheatgrass vegetation).”

Tannerite is one brand of available explosive targets, Howell said, and is probably the safest chemical on the market for avid target shooters.

5.  Smoking.  Smoking is wisely limited to within an enclosed vehicle, camp trailer, building, developed recreation site or while stopped in an area at least six feet in diameter that is barren or cleared to mineral soil, whether or not one is in the areas covered by the BLM’s recent restrictive mandates.

6.  Campfires in non-designated areas.  BLM’s recent urgent restrictions prohibit open fire of any kind except campfires and charcoal fires within agency approved fire pits and grills in certain areas.  Whether or not one is in the areas covered by those restrictions, it is noted that devices fueled by petroleum or LPG products, or propane, are a safer option.

7.  Welding, cutting and grinding of metal. These and any similar kinds of workmanship and activities that may cause sparks should be avoided entirely in any high-risk area, those with cheat grass and other dry vegetation.  Certain regions are subject to legal prohibition of these activities, pursuant to the BLM urgent restrictions now in place.

8.  Fireworks safety.  Fireworks safety tips include:

•            Be aware of your surroundings.  Do not ignite fireworks near vegetated areas or where you could start structural fires, which often happens.

•            Do not discard expended fireworks into trashcans.  Howell said, “we see a lot of trash can fires because people throw them in the trash thinking they are out.”

•            After you’ve ignited your fireworks, put them in a bucket of water (rather than the trash) or leave them in the gutter until the next morning.

•            If you attempt to ignite a firework and it does not go off, you should leave it alone, do not attempt to reignite – doing so can not only increase fire hazard but personal injury risk as well.

•            Unless a firework is designed to be hand held (like a sparkler), do not hold a firework in your hand.  Always ignite such fireworks on a flat level surface.

•            Before you begin your fireworks festivities, preparedness is key.  This includes having a bucket of water or fire extinguisher nearby as well as a shovel.

Finally, ”I would advise avoiding lighting fireworks under windy conditions.  We want everyone to enjoy their holiday, but if there is wind it is best to put off the fireworks to another day”

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copyright St. George News 2011

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