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As wildfire threats grow, there’s a booming business in defensible space

Dustin Johnson, a foreman for Wilderness Forestry, uses a high-powered weed trimmer on brush in a common area of the Sierra Canyon community in Northwest Reno, Nev., on June 28, 2022.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Dustin Johnson, a foreman for Wilderness Forestry, uses a high-powered weed trimmer on brush in a common area of the Sierra Canyon community in Northwest Reno, Nev., on June 28, 2022.

In a community situated on the Peavine Mountain foothills in Reno, a work crew revved up brush-clearing tools. These weren’t your average Joe’s weed whackers; these were high-powered trimmers that sent leaves and branches flying everywhere.

The crew was with Wilderness Forestry, a Reno-based company hired by homeowners, homeowners associations, and commercial properties to reduce wildfire threats. Its job is to create what’s known as “defensible space” – a buffer between a property and the flammable brush and vegetation surrounding it.

“A lot of times when the developers build the homes, you know, they build them right on top of each other. And there’s not a whole lot of space in between them,” said Bill Steward, Wilderness Forestry’s defensible space inspector.

Steward said that’s one reason for the need to mitigate the risks of a wildfire ripping through neighborhoods – a threat that has heightened in the drought-stricken region. Last year, a record 1.5 million acres burned in the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range stretching between California and Nevada.

The Dixie Fire was the single largest fire in California’s history, burning nearly 1 million acres. Smoke blew as far east as Utah and Colorado, causing unhealthy air quality in both states. The Caldor Fire scorched more than 200,000 acres south of Lake Tahoe, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate.

“It hit really close to home,” Steward said. “This was the first time – last year – that fire actually crested the Sierras and came down into lake valley and basically [Tahoe’s] south shore.”

A summer later, Wilderness Forestry is busier than ever. According to Steward, the company is on track to double its annual revenue and number of contracts this year.

“It’s tough for us to keep up with demand,” he said. “A lot of phone calls. We’re probably six months out right now so far as taking on any new business.”

The company mainly works in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area, but it sends crews hundreds of miles to Northern California areas like Napa Valley. Jobs range from clearing one acre of brush to thinning 100 acres of trees.

Wilderness Forestry foreman Dustin Johnson.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Wilderness Forestry foreman Dustin Johnson.

On a recent day in Reno, foreman Dustin Johnson used his trimmers on unruly sagebrush – nearly as tall as he is – in the Sierra Canyon community.

Johnson sees his crew as the first line of defense to help firefighters.

“Giving them a safe area to get in and lay hoses behind houses, clearing on sides of driveways to make sure their trucks are safe,” he said. “And getting in and giving them a chance to fight the fire safely.”

So far, there haven’t been any major summer blazes in the Reno-Tahoe area. But two California fires sparked in early July pushed smoke into the Reno valley: the Electra Fire in the Sierra foothills near Sacramento and the Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park.

“Luckily, we haven’t had a big fire around here lately,” Steward said. “But it’s not a matter of if, it’s when.”

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, said wildfire threats in the West have increased as more people move into what’s known as the wildland urban interface. That’s where urban areas and undeveloped lands collide – and it accounts for 69% of the buildings destroyed by wildfires in the U.S.

Take the Marshall Fire that ignited in Boulder County, Colo., in late December. It was the state’s most destructive – destroying more than 1,000 homes, many in the wildland urban interface.

“And unfortunately, a lot of people are moving to these areas who may not be familiar with wildfire and how quickly fires can move – how damaging they can be if you don’t have survivable space around your home,” Gardetto said.

Gardetto said that’s why fire agencies are trying to get the word out about creating defensible space – and maintaining it. Some counties regulate homes in fire-hazard areas. For example, around Reno, an ordinance requires new properties built after 2013 to have 30 to 100 feet of defensible space.

But Gardetto said some homeowners don’t comply with defensible space codes because they think it costs too much or will make their yards look empty and ugly.

“And that's really not the case,” she said. “It’s just mostly about spacing out the existing plants that you have and keeping them green.”

Sometimes, she added, that can make all the difference between saving and losing a home – or even a community.

That’s why Steward said he wants Nevada to pass legislation that helps fire agencies hire more staff to inspect homes for defensible space.

In the meantime, Wilderness Forestry’s workers will keep trimming.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Kaleb Roedel
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