Defensible space mantra seems more important now |

Defensible space mantra seems more important now

by F.T. Norton
Appeal Staff Writer

Kevin Clifford/Nevada Appeal Sharon Arnold, head of the Clear Creek Fire Safe Council, looks at her fire-department mandatory water storage system that is in the back yard while petting her dog Toby on Saturday. The Arnolds cleared a perimeter of about 100 yards of highly flammable vegetation around their house to reduce the risk of losing their home during a fire.

Local fire chiefs agree a catastrophic fire like what happened last week in South Lake Tahoe is possible in Carson, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties. Sometimes they have a difficult time convincing homeowners.

“Basically, people didn’t want our advice,” said Lyon County Fire Chief John Gillenwater. “They really just want us to show up when it’s smoking and burning and that’s when you see them outside with their weed eaters.

“I’ve seen more fuel modification done by residents during the fire than I’ve ever seen happen ahead of the fire.”

That defensible space around homes gives firefighters a greater chance to save structures and makes their jobs safer.

“You have to give us a fighting chance,” Gillenwater said.

Yet evaluations done of private property two years ago received a cold response from homeowners and, he said. No one showed up at two well-publicized Fire Safe Council meetings designed to give tips on how to protect the home, property and community from fire.

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Other counties also have active programs to inform residents.

“We go out every year, primarily in our Highlands area, and we do a complimentary defensible space inspection,” said Storey County Fire Chief Gary Hames. That information is then passed on to the homeowner and it’s their responsibility to ensure their property is fire safe.

Hames said in an area like the Virginia City Highlands where the terrain is sloping and trees and brush are thick, homeowners should increase the suggested defensible space of 30 feet to 100 feet.

“When we do our inspections, really, we are asking for 100 feet,” he said, and then echoing Gillenwater, added. “Give us a fighting chance.”

East Fork Deputy Chief Fire Marshall Steve Eisele said Douglas County also evaluates properties and offers homeowners suggestions on clearing their land. He said the information gathered during those evaluations then goes into a program that can print maps that can then tell crews how to attack a fire from a defensible-space perspective.

“We can pull that list up and we can see there are 100 houses, 85 are in really good shape, five are in fair shape and 10 are in bad shape. What that does is help us to know how many resources were are going to need to fight this fire.”

Eisele said in addition to defensible space, homeowners should have a good, visible address and make sure their driveways are clear so engines can get into them in the event of a fire.

Carson City Fire Chief Stacey Giomi said his department also conducts yearly inspections of areas within the “wildland urban interface,” defined as the area where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland. Some of those areas would be Clear Creek, Deer Run Road, Timberline and Kings Canyon.

“Probably for the last 10 or 11 years we have been involved in going door to door or neighborhood to neighborhood,” he said.

In addition to evaluating properties, Giomi said his department also offers the Dumpster and Trailer program.

The department has a Dumpster or a dump trailer delivered to a property owner who requests it, and then the owner fills it with “green waste,” ostensibly the vegetation that has been removed during the creation of defensible space.

“You call, we haul. It’s free to community members who live in the wildland interface,” he said. “Last year between March and September we hauled away 168 tons of green waste from the community, so that’s 168 tons of fuel that isn’t on the ground to burn.”

Yet even with defensible space, Giomi said what all of the chiefs mentioned, the fire really dictates what homes to fight for.

“There are houses that we come across that don’t look like we have the ability to save them,” he said.

But, he noted, that doesn’t mean people should ignore the issue.

“You can’t not do anything. You have to take the advice and do the best that you can. And you just hope and pray that the firefighters can get there in time and do some good for you and Mother Nature is kind to you. But there are no guarantees,” he said. “That’s the message people need to get. We live in a fire environment. This area is susceptible to it. That needs to be a part of our conscious thought – that it could happen to me.”

Defensible space

The fire departments in Carson City, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties will send someone out to help homeowners determine what they need to do to make their properties fire safe.

• In Carson City call 887-2210

• In Douglas County call 782-9040

• In Lyon County call 246-6208

• In Storey County call 847-0954

Carson City and Douglas county residents can also join one of six Fire Safe Councils in each area. For information visit the Nevada Fire Safe Councils at

Living With Fire, developed by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and funded by a National Fire Plan grant from the Nevada Division of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, teaches people how to safely coexist with wildfire when it does occur. For information visit

• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at or 881-1213.