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The McHugh wildfire holds lessons for Anchorage homeowners

Anchorage Fire Department Capt. Marc Nokelby leaves a booklet during a Firewise Home Assessment Program visit to properties along Potter Heights Drive prompted by the McHugh Creek wildfire on Friday, July 22, 2016, in south Anchorage. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

The recent McHugh Creek fire was a wake-up call for Anchorage. We've heard for years how a fire could sweep across the Anchorage Hillside and in July we got a sense of the possibility.

This time we were on the lucky side of the "ifs."

If the wind had changed direction … if the fire had crested the hill … if the rain hadn't come … and if the rocky bluffs along the Seward Highway hadn't helped contain the fire. If not for these fortunate circumstances — if the fire had ravaged homes and spread across the Hillside — the $6 million-plus expense to contain the fire would seem a pittance.

Now that we've had the close call, we need to prepare as a community and take steps to increase the odds of surviving a Hillside wildfire.

The first step can be taken now, during fall cleanup, which focuses on clearing a minimum width of 15 feet around your home. Fire needs a source of combustible fuel.

1. Clean the gutters of leaves and debris. Gutters are mounted to the side of a house fascia, which allows fire easy access to wood or the roof of a home.

2. Use the weed whacker on any standing vegetation and trim it back. Remember to collect and bag debris so you don't have readily combustible fuel aging around the home.

3. Evaluate trees close to the home. Prune the lower limbs so adjoining trees don't touch; this will reduce the chances that a fire can easily jump. Consider encouraging the growth of birch and other hardwoods closer to a home instead of the more flammable spruce

4. Evaluate your ground covers. Big box stores sell wood chips and recycled shredded tires, but in a wildfire these materials act as a wick for flying embers to reach the house. Consider using rock within 3 feet of the house perimeter. If you only have lawn, keep it well maintained and watered.

When spring comes, be proactive. Beginning in April, when the snow is gone, call the Anchorage Fire Department at 267-4902 to request a free fire evaluation.

In past years, federal grants have helped fund a 50/50 cost-share to create a defensible perimeter around your home, and such a program could be available again in the future. Past programs have matched each dollar up to $2,000 per acre. (There are some restrictions and conditions, such as a 60-day window from the initial inspection to completion of work, so plan early and get bids if necessary to act quickly.)

The defensible space around your home can range from 30 to 100 feet depending on your topography. Hillside homes need a larger perimeter on the downhill side because fire easily "runs" uphill as convective heat pulls the fire up. Creating such a large space will take a little planning. Trimming out deadfall and underbrush not only helps to create a defensible space but reduces food sources and habitat for carpenter ants as well.

Finally, have a game plan for the worse-case scenario — a fire heading your way:

1. Keep combustibles — including firewood, trash and gas sources (ATV, four-wheel vehicles) — 30 feet away from the home, with a 10-foot clear perimeter, preferably not on the downhill side.

2. Take inventory of your firefighting equipment. Keep garden hoses, sprinklers, pumps and generators handy and operable.

3. Clean chimneys and stovepipes to prevent creosote buildup. Clean out dryer ducts to prevent lint buildup. Both are possible fire hazards.

4. If you have a cedar shake roof, consider replacing it as soon as possible. Until then, when the first notice to evacuate comes in a wildfire, be prepared to leave immediately. With the recent wildfire, we've learned from the Fire Department that a cedar shake roof is hard to defend.

5. Rehearse your family's emergency plan. Identify those quick-grab items: important valuables and documents.

For more suggestions on how to survive a wildfire, go to the Fire Department (under the Public Safety tab on the muni.org website) and scroll down to the Wildfire Mitigation section for Firewise topics.

A fire won't affect just Hillside homeowners but all of Anchorage. The struggle will be in trying to contain the flames, the damage will be the personal property destroyed, and the devastation will be lives and property lost that could have been saved. If we don't prepare as a community, we take our chances of being lucky … again.

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