Cindy Sherry cut down this ornamental spruce after Nelson Fire and Rescue’s Scott Jeffery explained that it was a potentially serious wildfire hazard. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

FireSmart assessment an eye-opener for Nelson homeowner

Landscaping should be ‘clean, lean, and green’

Cindy Sherry only had to do two things to move the fire hazard on her Uphill property from extreme to low.

She cut an ornamental spruce from her front yard and removed the first three metres of branches from a large cedar.

“I feel a lot better now,” she told the Star. “I feel we have done our due diligence. It has given me a bit more peace of mind.”

In mid-August Sherry accompanied Nelson Fire and Rescue’s Scott Jeffery in a tour of her yard for a free FireSmart assessment. The Star tagged along.

FireSmart is a set of practices designed to protect homes from wildfire. Nelson Fire and Rescue offers free FireSmart assessments for Nelson residents.

The first stop was the big cedar in the front yard, quite close to the house — the one Sherry has since pruned. She had already cut a few of the lower limbs from the tree, but Jeffery said she should do more.

“These are called ladder fuels,” he said, indicating the low branches, “so you can see here that if a fire were to start and be smoldering down in the needles below, it could easily spread to the limbs.”

In current dry conditions, he said, a fire would burn from the bottom to the top “and then throw up a bunch more embers, so that is a big concern, keeping fire out of trees.”

He advised her to remove all the branches to the two or three metre mark. He said she might want to go even higher to enhance her view, but that she would have to make a choice between view and privacy.

Sherry asked if she should remove the tree altogether.

“If you go purely by the FireSmart manual,” Jeffery said, “it says that any conifers within 10 metres of your house should be removed. But it is always a balance of aesthetics versus safety and we cannot remove every tree. So home owners have to make their own decisions.”

He said the tree would present much less risk if the ladder fuels were cleaned up.

Sherry’s house has crushed drainage rock around its perimeter. Jeffery told her this was an excellent fire prevention feature, but he pointed out that combustible litter from the cedar had accumulated on it, providing fuel right to the base of her house. He suggested she rake it away.

“If you are going to keep this cedar,” he said, “every spring you should get rid of all the dead leafy material. That way a creeping groundfire cannot advance toward the house.”

Then they discussed a nearby ornamental spruce, also at the front of the house. Jeffery said its close proximity to the cedar created a problem of too many conifers too close to the house.

“This is going to look silly if you trim it, and I am not going to tell you to remove it, but this one might have outlived its purpose. It is not presenting an immediate threat to the house now, but these can grow 40 feet high.”

Since the assessment, Sherry has cut down the ornamental spruce, cut the branches on the cedar up to three metres, and raked the dry litter off the drain rock beside her house.

The spruce and the cedar beside it — their proximity to each other and to the house — were the two factors that bumped Sherry into the extreme fire hazard zone on a FireSmart assessment score that Jeffrey applied to her property after the tour around the yard.

Proceeding around to the west side of the home, Jeffery praised the landscaping near the house.

“Great surface treatment here, you can see this is all non-combustible in the first metre, metre and a half (from the house). So you have clean, lean and green right here.”

He pointed to a coniferous hedge on the west side of the property.

“This is very far from both your house and your neighbour’s. You could retain it for aesthetics and it is a privacy barrier. It is doing its job, not presenting a risk to you or your neighbour. It’s a very well placed hedge.”

Moving to the back of the house, Sherry asked about her wooden deck.

“We recommend in the future when it is time to replace it, you consider a non combustible deck,” Jeffery said.

Sherry asked about her cedar siding.

“I think your siding is gorgeous,” he said, and added that the non-combustible crushed rock around the perimeter of the house “drops the risk (of the siding) to near nothing. The cedar siding would create a risk if you had something like a woodpile stored against it or had litter accumulated.”

Jeffery also told Sherry that since she has a metal roof there is no risk of embers landing on it and starting a fire, but he said if there was a fire nearby she should consider putting a sprinkler on her deck for an hour every day.

He said he liked the way the underside of the deck and outside stairs were sheathed in, to prevent fire or embers from blowing underneath it.

Sherry’s property is adjacent to the rail trail, and Jeffery saw this as a definite advantage.

“I did 10 years with Ministry of Forests as a firefighter, and firefighters are always looking for control lines, and then building on them, to steer a fire away from a community. So air attack and planes would be looking at that corridor there and hoping to push a fire up and away.”

Another advantage of her location, he said, is that fires tend to burn uphill. He added that the forest above the rail trail in Sherry’s part of uphill is mostly deciduous, which is less flammable than a coniferous forest.

After the tour of the yard, Jeffery and Sherry sat down with the FireSmart manual and went through its scoring system — a risk assessment tool that gives points for more than dozen different characteristics of a house and yard.

For example, a homeowner would gain higher scores if the outbuildings are more than 10 metres from the house, if the windows are double-paned, if the gutters are unclogged, and if the home is located at the bottom of a slope.

That’s when Jeffery told Sherry that she could reduce her fire hazard score drastically by dealing with the two conifers in front of her house.

“It’s great, I feel a lot better,” she said. “I had a lot of questions about our trees. They had been bothering me, it was about the trees and the cedar siding and the back deck. All those questions were answered.”

Nelson residents can schedule a FireSmart assessment by calling 250-352-3103.