Hannah Thompson-Welch, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist with the North Carolina Forest Service, talks about reducing fire risks around buildings. Photo: C. Leinbach

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By Peter Vankevich

Ocracoke’s dense vegetation, remoteness and high winds make fire safety one of the most important responsibilities of islanders and visitors.

The wind can send pieces of burning vegetation or debris upwards to a mile away causing a risk of more fires. Fire danger is why Ocracoke bans outdoor burning and all fireworks, except for the Fourth of July event that is strictly controlled.

National Park Service (NPS) officials presented the dangers of wildfires as well as fire hazards around buildings at a public information session in April in the Community Center.

Between the National Seashore and the village is a mowed swatch of land called a fire break that could contain a fire in the Seashore from spreading into the village. It must be mowed periodically, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent David Hallac said they plan to recut this break soon.

The top cause of fires nationwide, at 74 percent, is from debris burning, said Hannah Thompson-Welch, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist with the North Carolina Forest Service.  She was among the several staffers with the NPS, the N.C. Forest Service, the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on hand  to talk fire safety.

Debris fires, especially those in the open, can spread quickly when they go unattended even for a few minutes, or if they are not fully extinguished, she said.

“Once you light a fire, you’re responsible until it’s fully extinguished,” she said adding “Most home losses in a wildfire occur from embers, not by direct contact with flames.”

“But the number one fear in Hyde County is lightning,” said Hyde County Ranger Henry Phelps.

Thomson-Welch’s focus is in educating communities to become “Firewise” by using good practices to reduce fire hazards.

Here are 10 proactive items that homeowners should take care of within five feet of their homes:

  • Remove all flammable items stored in carports or underneath elevated decks/porches. Move them at least 30 feet from the home.
  • Place 1/8-inch metal mesh screening between low-profile decks from surface to ground to block embers from collecting underneath.
  • Remove dead vegetation and debris from under decks and porches and between deck board joists.
  • Use non-flammable fencing material (metal or masonry) when attaching directly to the siding.
  • Ensure there’s a minimum of at least five feet of noncombustible material where it attaches to the siding.  Do not add vines or other types of vegetation to fencing material.  Wooden fences can carry flames directly to the house.
  • Embers from a fireplace can exit the chimney and could ignite a wildfire. To prevent this install a spark arrester.
  • Metal roof gutters do not ignite, only the debris material that accumulates in them. That’s why keeping them clean is so important.
  • Keep roofs and gutters free from leaf litter and pine needles.  Remove all tree limbs within 10 feet of the roof.
    Use ignition-resistant building materials on exterior walls.
  • Wood mulch or pine straw should not be within five feet of homes; use noncombustible mulch products such as crushed rock/stone.
  • Remove dead vegetation, dried leaves, pine needles, and ground debris. Remove trees and shrubs from this area, or replace with succulents.
One of Thompson-Welch’s fire safety slides shows the fire risk of dense vegetation close to buildings on Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach


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