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Fighting fires with education

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Last year, leaping flames west of Lake Grapevine swept through the brush and trees not far – as the crow flies – from where a group gathered to identify areas to be cleared as part of the year-old Denton County Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

The Trophy Club fire moved quickly between Highway 377 and Lake Grapevine last March, edging closely at times to new neighborhoods – sometimes within a few yards. More than 50 firefighters from neighboring fire departments raced to control the fire, trying to veer it away from the houses.

This year, firefighters from Argyle, Flower Mound and Highland Village are working with the Texas A&M Forest Service, U.S. Corps of Engineers and Denton County Emergency Services to identify and reduce wildland fire risks on government property next to existing homes and neighborhoods.

On a cold late February morning, Forest Service and Corps of Engineers crews walked along a fence line, marking a 25-foot clearance on Corps property to create a fire break off Apache Trail at Roanoke Hills in Flower Mound. The area was identified as a possible hazard through the use of satellite imagery from the Forest Service as well as walk-throughs by area firefighters to identify regions and spot potential problems.

“Fire moves from grass into small brush to large trees,” said Marc Dodd, deputy fire marshal with the Denton County Emergency Services. “It can create a crown fire and spread faster.”

Pink ribbon fluttered in the cold breeze – markers clearly visible for volunteers who would soon gather to clear the underlying brush for the fire break. The crews also identify native species so that when clearing the property, the trees are left preserve the natural feel, said Brandon Barth, emergency management specialist with the Flower Mound Fire Department.

After clearing the properties, fire officials will also schedule prescribed burns in some areas. Those prescribed burns replenish the soil, create a fire break and allow firefighters to train for when an actual

The project, officials hope, will serve as a demonstration to the public on how they, too, can take steps to protect their own properties.  It also provides an opportunity for firefighters across the county to train for wildland fires.

“Flower Mound has been the leader in getting involved in this project,” Dodd said.  A large portion of the western side of Flower Mound abuts government property. The town also has wide open fields in the Cross Timbers Conservation District which could be susceptible to wildfires.

Deputy Fire Chief Jerry Kirby with the Argyle Fire District said several of his firefighters, including himself, would be going through the wildland fire training to prepare for whatever the season may bring. Argyle is mostly rural with acres of open fields. Highland Village and Flower Mound firefighters also are expected to undergo wildland fire training.

Concerns linger, however, among firefighters and state officials about property owned by private landowners. They hope to educate homeowners about the need to create fire breaks on their own properties – properties firefighters and state officials cannot clear.

After the major fire burned through hundreds of acres last March near Trophy Club and the recent wildland fires around Possum Kingdom Lake and other Texas towns, studies have shown wildfires pass over some homes while completely destroying others.

“What we learned is that the fires skipped over those homes with fire breaks,” Dodd said.

During the last two years, 85 percent of the wildfires in Texas have occurred within two miles of a community, according to the Forest Service. As subdivisions and businesses sprout up next to surrounding forests and fields, new fire risks are being recognized, officials say.
“The issue we have is we can’t go into private areas” to create fire breaks or conduct fire mitigation, Dodd said.

Residents in neighborhoods near open fields can take several steps to reduce their risks, officials said. Clearing brush under trees to reduce the fuel load helps as does cleaning up leaf litter and using landscape materials that will not fuel wildfires. Residents should also look at the types of building materials used on their homes and nearby buildings.

“There are all sorts of things they can do to reduce the chance their house will burn if a wildfire moves through the area,” Dodd said. “That’s what’s going to make a difference.”

Fire officials say it’s not just homes next to open fields. Once a wildfire moves into a neighborhood, it quickly jumps from one home to the next. As a wildfire rages, it creates a blizzard of embers that can travel more than a mile on air currents before landing to create other fires.

That is the reason firefighters work to create fire breaks so that wildfires never make it close to neighborhoods. However, when that has occurred, homeowners who have taken precautions usually have a higher chance of saving their homes, officials add.

The year-old group was created last year after Denton County Emergency Services Director Jody Gonzalez suggested county firefighters and government officials work together to create a fire mitigation plan. After identifying problem areas on government property, clearing land and training firefighters, the next step is public education.

Residents will receive pamphlets explaining what they can do to keep their homes safe in case a wildfire ventures close to their neighborhoods or rural residences. Information is also available online at http://txforestservice.tamu.edu or on local fire station websites.
“The majority of the issues are on private property,” Dodd said. “We need the public to understand the issues.”

Photo Caption: 
Marking the clearing area on government property near a residential area are Marty Underwood with the U.S. Corps of Engineers and Russell Behlings with the Chisholm Trail Task Force, an arm of the Texas A&M Forest Service. (Photo by Dawn Cobb)

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