Living with fire

Published 6:15 am Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The anniversary of the fires of Gatlinburg is coming up, so I thought it good to discuss fire and our relationship with it, especially in a forest. We live on a planet where carbon chemically reacts with oxygen and sufficient heat to produce heat energy and light, a process we call “fire.” The carbon is mostly produced by plants like trees and grass. Since almost any plant material can burn, fire is a very common phenomena, doing either harm or good depending on where and what it consumes.

Fire can be seen as good when it is used as a tool, such as burning brush piles or leaves. It can be used to prepare a site for tree planting by removing woody debris, or improve some wildlife habitats. It remains good as long as it stays where it belongs and burns only what is intended. Keeping it good requires planning and management, a process we call prescribed fire. Fire becomes bad when it starts and burns things unintended, what we call wildfire. Wildfire lives only to consume fuel and it doesn’t care if the fuel is leaves or a house. So if your home is located in the woods, fire will treat it like any other fuel and burn it if it can get to it and under the right conditions.

Many of us like being close to nature, and so building a home in a forest or other “wild” places is understandable. There’s a catchy name for houses built in the woods: the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI for short.

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Here’s the deal: A forest drops tons of dead leaves, needles, twigs, branches, even entire trees (all carbon remember) every year. This dead material is what fuels a wildfire and allows it move around. A house in the woods receives some of this downpour of dead fuel, and if allowed to can accumulate on the lawn, in flower beds, against the foundation, and even in gutters and on roofs. So a wildfire could burn right up to the house and potentially catch it on fire. Floating embers (called fire brands) produced by the fire could land in a leaf filled gutter or roof and start them ablaze as well.

So bottom line: folks that live in the woods need to be pro-active in protecting their homes from wildfire. Actions to take are common sense things: keep leaves raked up near the home; keep gutters and roofs clean, use non-burnable mulching material next to the house (not bark), don’t plant flammable landscape plants near the house. The goal is to keep your house and landscape in such a condition that it would withstand a wildfire even if no one was around.

There is a national educational program called Firewise that provides excellent advice on how to keep homes safe from wildfire. Contact your local state forestry agency for more information, or go online to

Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.