Volunteers helping homeowners reduce wildfire risks

Wildfire is a big concern for some homeowners in the Virginia Highlands, nestled among the scenic - and dry - landscape north of Virginia City.

This summer, they are getting some help - at least in the form of education on what they can do to protect their homes. Student interns are going door to door to teach residents about rural fire safety.

The Student Conservation Association's Fire Education Corps is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise homeowner awareness about fire safety and defensible space.

The education corps evaluations are part of a pilot project born out of response to wild fires. Students began in early June and will finish Aug. 31.

Brian Van Kley is Carson City team leader for the Student Conservation Association.

In the Virginia Highlands homeowners are living among pinon pines, juniper and sagebrush.

"All the vegetation is very dry and very ready to burn, and there's a high risk of fire," Van Kley said.

The conservation association helps people identify vegetation prone to fire and suggests planting green water-loving, non-woody plants.

Interns are also suggesting homeowners create defensible space - a 30-foot fire break - between their homes and existing vegetation.

"That doesn't mean cutting down trees, just pruning them and keeping lawn and plants well watered," Van Kley said.

Firewood piles also need 10- to15-feet of clearance.

"This is one of the driest years in a long time," Van Kley said.

Students have evaluated 50 homes in the Virginia Highlands and have the potential to do 500.

"The results have been good and the cooperation of residents was really good," Van Kley said. "We suggested trimming trees and identified available water sources."

"The idea is to reduce fuels and thus reduce threat of fire overtaking homes," Van Kley said. "It's all about taking people from a state of awareness to a state of action. I have a feeling it's going to be a big deal for years to come."

Brian Grady, 24, from Ohio is another of the student interns.

"I like educating people and helping the community learn how to save their homes and possibly their lives," he said.

"I'm enjoying it, we're out here helping people and I get to see the West," said Julia Olszewski, 22, of Cleveland. "We got flagged down on the street twice yesterday" by Highlands homeowners asking for evaluations.

Olszewski and Christopher Warren, of Vermont, evaluated Fran Shields' home Wednesday.

Shields has lived in the Virginia Highlands for 10 years.

"We're concerned with fire hazard. This is a good opportunity. We can use all the help we can get," Shields said.

After the evaluation, Warren was glad to have a cement roof on her house because that's the most vulnerable part of the house to fire.

Charmain McMillan, of Alabama, and Grady evaluated Jean Pici's house.

"Defense begins with the homeowner; they have to take responsibility," Pici said. "It's wonderful to let me know what I need to do."

Tracy Curtis, fire inspection officer for Storey County, said there have been a few small lightning fires on the outskirts of the Highlands this year.

Evaluations take about a half hour and are done only for those residents who ask.

The conservation association has two offices in Nevada doing evaluations, one in Carson City with seven interns and one in Elko with seven interns. There are also five sites in Idaho with seven people on each team for a total of 50 interns from across the United States.

Eleni Vagelatos, from Long Island, N.Y., is Elko's team leader.

As of July 12, her team had evaluated 20 homes and the South Fork State Recreation Area. "We've got a lot of state parks on the schedule,"she said.

The evaluation program is a cooperative effort with Firesafe Highlands, East Fork and Storey County fire departments, Sierra Front, the Bureau of Land Management and Project Impact.

Marlene Rebori, of the University of Nevada, Reno's cooperative extension, has been fostering the development of Firesafe Highlands since October 2000. Firesafe Highlands is a coalition of Virginia Highlands residents concerned about wildfire in their area.

"The highlands are lucky to have the SCA there. I hope the residents take advantage," Rebori said.

Storey County Fire Chief Gary Hames said his department is working with the association by gathering information such as width and length of driveways and construction types of houses that will be used by firefighters in an emergency.

"I think what the SCA is doing is fantastic and a huge asset," Hames said. "What they'll complete in two months would take us two years."

Leonard Wehking, BLM fire management officer in Carson City, said if a home has defensible space around it firefighters are not put in as much danger trying to save the home from a wildfire,

He said the program would have helped in the Thomas Creek area during the Martis Fire where there were a lot of homes, he said.

"These students are extremely motivated and this project will help BLM get to where it wants to be in the future," Wehking said.

The SCA is also working in areas south of Carson City where wildlands and homes meet, called "wildland urban interface" areas.


SCA: www.sca-info.org

Project Impact: Pam Jenkins, (775) 783-6443

To schedule an evaluation call (775) 885-6066


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