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John and Karen Zulkowski couldn’t help worrying about their home when fire roared through 100 acres of dry grass and timber in Emerald Hills 15 months ago.

“The fire was on the other side of the ridge so we were in no immediate danger,” John Zulkowski said. “But, if it would have swung around the ridge, we would have been in trouble.”

Although no homes were destroyed in the April 2000 blaze, the Emerald Hills fire served as a wake-up call for homeowners, firefighters, city-county planners and emergency management agencies. Within months of the fire, officials began working on plans to improve fire protection in Emerald Hills and other rural subdivisions, areas commonly known as the urban wildland interface.

Beginning today, the Zulkowskis’ log home at 4785 Box Canyon Spring Road will be used as a demonstration project for Project Impact’s Firewise program. Experts will make the Zulkowskis’ home more defensible from wildfire.

“What they’ll be doing is thinning the trees and sagebrush and removing the fuel from around the house,” Zulkowski said Friday. “That way, should there be a grass fire or a wildfire, the flames would dissipate before they reach the house because of a lack of fuel.”

The Zulkowskis don’t have municipal water service or a well on their 4-acre tract, which is covered by ponderosa pine, grass and sagebrush. Their domestic water is stored in a pair of cisterns, and a pool near the house could provide 12,000 gallons of water in case of a fire.

The Lockwood Fire Department provides fire protection.

A video demonstrating how rural homeowners can reduce fire danger will be produced from the Firewise project at the Zulkowskis’ house, said Jim Kraft, Yellowstone County’s director of general and emergency services.

Project Impact, a federal disaster-prevention program, is paying for the Firewise demonstration project. On Friday Yellowstone County commissioners proclaimed today as Project Impact Firewise day.

In the future, fire prevention around houses in Emerald Hills will be paid for by homeowners or through other funding sources, such as volunteer labor or donations, Kraft said.

James Chapman, owner of Timber Resources Improvement, a wildfire risk reduction firm, did an assessment on the Zulkowskis’ property last spring.

Chapman has 25 years of firefighting experience with public and private agencies. He said portions of the Zulkowskis’ property have up to 1,000 young ponderosa pines per acre. The overall health of the trees will improve after the thick stands are thinned out, Chapman said.

His recommendations include:

Removing dead vegetation – trees, shrubs, branches, dried grass and weeds – from within 30 feet of the house.

Annually remove all debris and needles that accumulate in rain gutters.

Trees and shrubs within the 1.5-acre defensible area should be at least 24 feet apart.

Trees within the defensible area should be trimmed to one-third of their height or 8 feet from the ground to eliminate ladder fuels.

Materials at road edges should be trimmed 10 feet from the road.

Grasses and brush within the defensible area should be trimmed to no more than 3 inches high.

Street addresses should be visible to people traveling in two different directions.

Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at thoward@billingsgazette.com

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