April 27, 2018

NPS and Partners Educate OBX Residents about Wildfire Risks


The National Park Service (NPS) in conjunction with a number of other local, state and federal agencies wrapped up a series of meetings this week that aimed to educate the public about wildlife risks along the Outer Banks.

Held in Buxton, Ocracoke, Manteo, Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, the meetings provided valuable information on the threat of wildfires, current actions being taken to reduce the risk on a community level, and what residents can do to protect their own properties and neighborhoods.

“We have had these meetings in the past, and we wanted to bring them back,” said Boone Vandzura, Chief Ranger for the Outer Banks Group - Cape Hatteras National Seashore. “We are reaching out to the community with the N.C. Forest Service to discuss what the National Park Service is doing, as well as what the public can do to reduce the risks.”

“It’s a partnership between everyone – towns, the county, and state and federal [agencies],” said Steven Kovacs, Dare County Fire Marshall. “The big thing is to get folks to take a look around their house, and to be able to identity fire risks.”

The meetings tied in with the launch of a website aimed to educate the public, http://www.firewise.org, where a number of materials that were shared at the meeting can be obtained.

For Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, there is a noticeable risk of fires catching and spreading quickly, due to the vegetation, landscape, and the inherent nature of individual homes and properties.

Common Risks on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands

John Van Riper, Dare County Ranger with the N.C. Forest Service, explained the three different ignition zones around a home, as well as the commonly found materials and vegetation that can ignite and propel a potential fire.

The “Immediate Zone” is the area up to 5 feet around the home or building itself, which should be clear of any flammable vegetation, debris, materials and trees. The “Intermediate Zone” is the area between 5-30 feet around the home, which should have a minimum spacing of 18 feet between tree tops, while the “Extended Zone,” (which is 40 feet away from the home or more), should have a minimum spacing of 12 or 6 feet, depending on location.

However, as anyone who looks around the island landscape will quickly recognize, sticking to the guidelines of these zones is not very common.

A number of native or naturalized vegetation, such as pampas grass, Russian olives, and wax myrtles, are commonly used in landscaping around the home, but are highly flammable when it comes to fires.

“Russian olives will burn quite nicely,” said Van Riper, “and wax myrtles will burn at the same rate of gasoline.”

The risks go up when these shrubs and trees are close to the home or structure, and are also close to other flammable materials such as wood lattices, wooden decks and fences, and propane tanks.

Mulch, leaves, and other debris are another common issue when it comes to fires, as not only are these materials often highly flammable, but they can travel with the wind and affect other properties.

“Even if the foliage around the home itself isn’t flammable, if it’s surrounded by mulch, it’s a risk,” said Van Riper. “A wildland fire that affects one structure can throw fire brands [or burning material] that spread and affect other properties around it. Leaves, pine straw, and other mulches are a jackpot of fuel for fire brands, too.”

It was noted that residences and buildings in the wooded areas of Buxton and Frisco were especially in harm’s way. Built up with vegetation over the decades and centuries, and often bordering the Buxton Woods Coastal Reserve, a wildland fire that starts in this corner of Hatteras Island would be very hard to stop. “It would be difficult to address if it started burning,” said Van Riper.

But wooded areas aren’t the only regions of the islands at risk.

Along the beach and dune lines, wooden boardwalks that access the shoreline are often hovering above dry grasses, which in turn connect with homes. Van Riper encouraged residents to have a sprinkler system or hose nearby, to protect homes from any fires that may start and spread along wood boardwalks that border sea oats and grasses.

“Obviously, we want to protect the dunes [with vegetation],” but we want to protect the homes and the people in them too,” he said. 

Wind also plays a key role when it comes to spreading fires, and Van Riper listed the 2016 Whipping Creek Fire on the Dare and Hyde County mainland as a prime example.

This wildfire, which eventually burned more than 15,000 acres, began on a small 1/10th acre of property. But when the wind switched, the fire spread to hundreds of acres within 30 minutes.

In essence, due to the islands’ unique landscape and consistent winds, the risks for fires starting and spreading are fairly substantial, but with a community effort, these risks can be minimized.

“It’s a shared responsibility to reduce the risk,” said Van Riper. “We have excellent fire departments, but they can only do so much… and that’s why it’s a shared responsibility. Everyone has to work together.”

What Homeowners and Visitors Can Do to Minimize Risk

Van Riper and the other representatives at the public meetings outlined a few tips for homeowners who want to minimize risk to their own homes, as well as their neighborhood. These guidelines included the following:

  • Do not plant trees and shrubs adjacent to the home, (within 5 feet), especially vegetation which is highly flammable, such as pampas grass, wax myrtles, and Russian olives.
  • Have a sprinkler system or keep a hose handy, especially if you live close to grassy and wooded areas, and / or wooden boardwalks to the beach.
  • Space trees at least 12-18 feet apart when landscaping, depending on the aforementioned ignition zone, and clear out low branches on trees that can catch fire.
  • Watch for mulch, leaves, and pine straw when landscaping. Clean up excess materials and debris around the house regularly, and mow tall, grassy areas near the home.
  • Monitor all charcoal grills and fires, and ensure they are extinguished. Watch for wind conditions when grilling.
  • Watch for wooden features and décor close to the home, like wood lattice or planters made with flammable materials.
  • Add corrosive-resistant metal mesh screens to outside soffits and vents to prevent embers and hot materials that may be burning outside from entering the home. 
  • Remember that fireworks are not allowed within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
  • Ensure vehicles and machinery of all varieties are in solid, working condition. The 2016 Whipping Creek Fire in Dare and Hyde Counties actually began when a lawnmower blade dipped, causing a spark. And Van Riper also noted that the number one cause of roadside wildland fires wasn’t cigarettes, but chains that were not properly hooked up to trailers behind vehicles, which in turn created a spark.
  • Visit and review the Firewise USA website at https://www.nfpa.org/ for additional tips and risk factors, which includes a list of flammable vegetation and safety tips. 

During the meetings, the National Park Service also outlined their Fire Management Plan Goals. These goals include a resolve to suppress all fires regardless of ignition source, to use prescribed fire when appropriate as a tool to manage vegetation, to develop working relationships with local fire management agencies, and to promote public understanding of wildland fire management. The NPS also utilizes regular mowing and brush cutting at various sites within the National Park to minimize risks at campgrounds, landmarks, and other popular public facilities.

Though lightly attended, the meetings were a first step in what the various agencies hope to be a continued effort to reach the public, and to provide education on possible risks throughout the Outer Banks.

“This really is a partnership between everyone who works with the National Park Service,” said Fire Marshall Kovacs, “and a lot of it is common sense. Just being vigilant, and understanding the risks, will go a long way.”

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