Many wildfires in southwest Oregon start as grass fires. They start surprisingly easy -- by a lawnmower blade striking a rock, a pickup truck’s exhaust pipe dragging across grass on a dirt road, an electric fence wire snapping against a metal post -- and spread quickly. It doesn’t take very much wind or slope for a grass fire to grow from a fire a few yards in size to a wildfire spanning several acres. To keep a grass fire from turning into a destructive wildfire, seconds count. Plan ahead to use those seconds wisely.
The best way to reduce the chance of a grass fire occurring on your property is to cut tall, dry grass before fire season begins. Roadsides and along driveways are common places for vehicle-caused grass fires to start. Pay special attention to places where vehicles may stop and idle, such as around mailboxes, gates and turnouts. Cutting grass around homes and outbuildings, such as workshops and barns, reduce the chance of accidental fires caused by malfunctioning equipment, smokers and children (or adults) with fireworks.
In all cases, keep informed about fire season restrictions imposed by the Oregon Department of Forestry and your local fire district. Cut tall, dry grass early in the summer -- as soon as the grass begins turning brown -- when fire danger levels are either “low” or “moderate.” Mowing for non-agricultural purposes is restricted as soon as the fire danger level reaches the “high” mark, and completely disallowed once it hits the “extreme” level. Mowing during restricted or disallowed periods may result in a ticket; if a fire results, the person who caused the fire could be billed for fire suppression costs.
Plan ahead so you know what to do if a fire starts. Have basic fire-fighting equipment close at hand – at least five gallons of water, a fire extinguisher in every vehicle and building, and a shovel. Burlap sacks are also useful; wet them down with water and use the wet sacks to beat down flames. In all cases, have a way to call for help, such as a telephone or a citizen’s band radio. Always know your escape routes and check them frequently.
If a fire starts, immediately call 9-1-1 and tell the dispatcher the address of the property on which the fire is burning. If you caused the fire, you have a legal responsibility to try and keep the fire from spreading. Never battle a grass fire by standing between the flames and unburned grass. Grass fires change direction without warning, and even a small grass fire can be deadly. Instead, fight the fire from inside the blackened area that the fire has already burned. Work along the cooler flanks by putting out small flames. Aim water and fire extinguisher streams at the base of the flames, not the tops.
But the best way to fight a grass fire is to prevent it from starting.
A strand of electric fencing tape or wire that is within arcing range of a t-post or metal gate can generate a spark each time the transformer pulses. If tall, dry grass or weeds are within range of the spark, a fire could start and quickly spread. It takes only a breeze or a gentle slope to turn a small grass fire into a swiftly spreading wildfire that could threaten homes, barns and other outbuildings. To keep such fires from starting, trim tall grass wherever electric fencing is strung. Check connections often to ensure arcing isn’t occurring anywhere along the fence’s path. Position a line tester within easy view of the home and make a habit of checking the flash often. If the tester’s flash is weak, or isn’t flashing at all, there’s a short -- possibly a spark-generating one -- somewhere along the fence line.
Hot exhaust pipes can easily start a grass fire if the vehicle drives over or parks on top of dry grass. Hot particles of carbon from a vehicle’s exhaust pipe can also cause a grass fire. Ensure the exhaust systems on farm vehicles are in good condition, and that four-wheelers and motorcycles have spark arresters. Mow commonly used roads and trails prior to fire season. It is important to mow the centerline of a farm road as well as several feet on each side of the road. This will reduce the chance of fires being sparked by hot exhaust pipes and carbon particles.
Take care when using jumper cables to start a car that has a dead battery. Improper use of jumper cables can easily generate a strong spark, sufficient to start a wildfire -- and potentially destroy an incapacitated vehicle.
In all cases, carry a fully charged fire extinguisher in each vehicle and ensure the operator knows how to use it. Carry a shovel should it be necessary to construct fire line, or defend the vehicle, an outbuilding, or yourself against a grassfire. Finally, carry a working cell phone or CB radio in each vehicle so that help can be summoned if necessary.
Machinery used to cut tall, dry grass can cause a fire especially if accumulations of cut grass become lodged beneath the machine. Striking a rock with a whirling blade is all it takes to set off a fire that could destroy the machine and cause a wildfire. Heat and sparks thrown from the machine itself can also cause a fire. A good way to avoid such problems is to perform routine maintenance on the machine. Clear away buildups of cut grass that have become lodged underneath the machine. Sharpen blades and ensure they are not bent or misaligned. Check exhaust pipes for holes. If a spark arrester is supposed to be installed in the exhaust system, ensure the screen is positioned correctly, and is clean and functional. Ensure the fuel system is not leaking, and check the electrical system for frayed wires and poor connections.
As with any other vehicle, make sure there is a fire extinguisher on board, a shovel close at hand, and a means for summoning help.
Get Expert Advice
Every piece of property is different, and each has unique fire-prevention problems to solve. A visit from a local fire prevention professional can answer those questions and provide you with realistic answers that you can use in your fire prevention strategy. Call the Oregon Department of Forestry or your local fire district to schedule a free fire prevention inspection.