JoAnne Skelly: Luck doesn’t determine which houses survive wildfire

The Prison Hill fire burns on July 2. (Photo: Faith Evans/Nevada Appeal)

The Prison Hill fire burns on July 2. (Photo: Faith Evans/Nevada Appeal)

Last week I stood in the street with my neighbor Karen watching a lightning started fire up on the mountain to the west. Fortunately, the smoke plume was small and the flames were hard to see even with binoculars.
We knew all of the firefighting services were stretched to the maximum with multiple fires across the Sierra Front and into California. It was going to be hours before a crew would be able to get up through the rugged terrain to the fire. However, soon we were relieved that a small helicopter appeared and made repeated water drops on the area to slow the blaze. We were lucky because a fire crew made it up there in the middle of the night and by mid-day the next day with the crews and air support the fire was out. Other areas were not so lucky.
Winds and lightning are a dangerous combination all year in the highly flammable West. We used to have a more limited fire season, but not anymore. A question we should all be asking ourselves is “Can our home survive if firefighters aren’t here to protect it?” They can’t be at every home, so it is our responsibility to make our homes, structures and property as fire safe as possible.
There are proven steps that homeowners can take to improve the odds of human life and home survival during wildfire. Why do some houses survive a wildfire, while others are destroyed?
Research proves that house survival during wildfire is not random, miraculous or dumb luck. Rather, it is the features of the house, the characteristics of the adjacent vegetation and other fuels, and routine maintenance that often determine which homes burn and which survive. These types of actions are called pre-fire activities.
Pre-fire activities are actions completed before a wildfire occurs that improve the survivability of people and the home. The winners will be the people who implement pre-fire activities. When everyone in the neighborhood completes their pre-fire activities, they start becoming a fire-adapted community.
Each homeowner can create defensible, survivable space around their home and property. Proper management of vegetation surrounding the home reduces the wildfire threat. Remove all dead vegetation (dead shrubs, dried grass and fallen branches). Thin out thick shrubs and trees to create a separation between them. Prevent ladder fuels by removing low tree branches and removing or pruning any shrubs under the tree.
For detailed information on reducing your wildfire risk go to
The Carson City version of the Fire Adapted Community publication is really helpful:
JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Reach her at


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