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Program highlights wildfire preparedness

Published: Friday, July 5 2013 5:55 p.m. MDT

Gretta Lewis uses a fire hose with Salt Lake City firefighters while learning about fire suppression at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 5, 2013. Next to her, from the left, are Quinn Porucznik, Poppy Lewis and Zoey Porucznik. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Gretta Lewis uses a fire hose with Salt Lake City firefighters while learning about fire suppression at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 5, 2013. Next to her, from the left, are Quinn Porucznik, Poppy Lewis and Zoey Porucznik. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Keeping homes safe from wildfires takes planning that could potentially prevent tragedy in the long run.

So far this year, there have been 340 reported wildfires in Utah that have burned nearly 11,000 acres.

As demonstrated this year in Colorado, wildfires can be deadly and destructive, but understanding and preparing for fires can save lives and property.

With another intense wildfire season predicted for Utah and the Intermountain West, the Natural History Museum of Utah has opened a new exhibit examining the role of wildfires in forest ecology and the relationship between humans and wildfires.

“Nature Unleashed: Wildfire” examines the powerful natural force that is particularly relevant to life in the West. The feature is open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and is part of a long-running “Nature Unleashed” exhibition at the museum that analyzes six types of nature disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.

Kai Nosack tries on protective firefighting gear at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 5, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Kai Nosack tries on protective firefighting gear at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 5, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

In Utah, wildfires are typically the most frequently occurring natural event, according to Tyre Holfeltz, state wildland urban interface coordinator, who spoke at the exhibit Friday. A wildland urban interface is an area where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire.

For years, most wildland fires were ignited by lightning, but recently more fires have been sparked by humans, Holfeltz explained, including 222 fires thus far in 2013. While preventing all wildfires is nearly impossible, there are steps to take to protect people and property, he said.

“You can add plants to your landscapes that will stay greener longer, therefore increasing the resiliency of your property and your home,” Holfeltz said.

Installing fire-resistant roof shingles, double- or triple-pane windows can help the spread of fire as well, he said.

Quinn Porucznik uses a fire hose with Salt Lake City firefighter Brandt Hancuff while learning about fire suppression at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 5, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Quinn Porucznik uses a fire hose with Salt Lake City firefighter Brandt Hancuff while learning about fire suppression at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 5, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Storing gas cans or yard equipment like mowers or snowblowers away from the house or attached garage is also an effective preventive measure.

“We look at our (wood) fences, 'Are they touching the house?'" Holfeltz queried rhetorically. “If they are, then what can be done to mitigate that?”

Simply putting a large piece of sheet metal between the fence and the house to “create a very thin barrier” is a practical preventive measure, he said. However, one of the easiest and most effective solutions to wildfire prevention for urban areas is removing potentially dangerous vegetation near houses that could provide fuel for flames.

Fires have shaped the West and are a natural part of its ecosystem, said Salt Lake City firefighter Aaron Lightfoot. But having a fire suppression plan in place in the event of a blaze is an important part of any household emergency plan.

Perry Williams builds a fire sculpture out of pipe cleaners at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 5, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Perry Williams builds a fire sculpture out of pipe cleaners at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 5, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

“If you live on the urban interface, then you need to have a defensible space between (your home) and the natural foliage that comes down from the mountainside,” Lightfoot said.

Having about 30 feet of open space is a good working distance that would provide a measure of safety, he explained, and would give firefighters the room needed to battle flames that might be encroaching toward homes and property.

“The defensible space is your biggest protection against fire danger,” he said. “If we see the fire coming, we can set up on all sides of your house to start the fire fight.”

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