The power of a wildfire is hard to grasp until you see one in person. The breadth and height of the flames, the speed of movement, and the smoke, the unbelievable smoke that churns until the sky is black for hundreds of miles and the sunlight turns a spooky orange color. A particularly sobering aspect of the fires that have impacted areas across the west this year is that they were not limited to the hinterlands. Fires in early summer burned suburban areas around Colorado Springs and south of Salt Lake City. Entire neighborhoods have vaporized, and the lives of residents and firefighters have been lost. And, of course, later in the summer our own state was heavily impacted.
The risk of wildfire is generally well-recognized in Eastern Washington, but what about Western Washington? Could the fire scenarios we saw over the summer happen in the Puget Sound area? In a word, yes. It’s sort of like a major earthquake—it’s not a question of if, but of when and exactly where. Wildfires burn in Western Washington every year. These fires have not been of the magnitude that we are seeing in the inland west. Historically, though, catastrophic fires have been a major force that has shaped the forested landscape of Western Washington. Given the right combination of conditions, the Westside could see some very destructive fires. Add in decades of fire suppression, climate change, a huge increase in rural residences, and the myriad of possible ignition sources, and the potential for disaster certainly exists.
This year was a sobering example of how quickly the right conditions can develop. It does not happen over a course of years, but rather weeks. None of us would have imagined at the soggy end of June that we would see record-breaking dry weather with red flag warnings lasting well into October across Western Washington, including the greater Seattle area. While there were several Westside wildfires during this period, it could have been much worse. The conditions were right fuel-wise, and the only thing largely (and thankfully) missing was ignition sources. In other words, we got lucky.
There is no reason to respond to fire risk with fear or to take drastic (and unwarranted) measures such as clear-cutting all the trees or denuding the understory of the forests around us. Instead, do so some careful, educated, and well-thought-out long-term planning and management around fire.
Too many people are lulled into a false sense of security by our recent string of wet springs and cool summers (not including this year), and incorrectly conclude that fire really is not an issue in Western Washington and does not warrant planning or action. I think just the opposite—that the cool, wet years are the ideal time to think, plan, and act on being “Firewise.” Firewise planning is a lot like estate planning—it is never too early, but often too late. I imagine that many if not most of the victims of this summer’s wildfires never thought it would happen to them. “Not in my neighborhood, and not this year.” By the time it becomes apparent that a perfect storm of conditions is developing, it may be too late to take meaningful action. Becoming fire-wise is a long-term management process that takes years of small steps (taking advantage of cool, wet conditions).
There are some key areas to think about regarding the Firewise prevention approach:
- Your family. Do you have an escape plan and an emergency preparedness kit that you can quickly and easily grab and go? Does your plan account for pets and livestock?
- Your home and other structures. What kind of materials are your roof and siding composed of? Are your roof and gutters clean or full of tinder-dry debris? Are attic and crawl space vents properly screened to keep out flying embers? Could a fire truck easily access your home and be able to turn around? Is your address clearly marked on the road
- Defensible space. Is there at least 30 feet of ignition-resistant landscaping to provide a fire break around your home? Are there trees dangling branches over your home? Is firewood stacked up against the siding of the house? Note that defensible space does NOT mean a barren landscape—there are number of fire-resistant plants that provide a beautiful, vegetated landscape while also mitigating fire risk. It is all about picking the right vegetation.
- Your forest. Is it kept properly thinned? Are trees pruned up to minimize ladder fuels? Is there excess debris? Note that this does not mean eliminating all the snags, downed logs, and understory vegetation that are critical for wildlife habitat and ecosystem function. Are there fire breaks and fire-control access roads or trails?
The impact of a Firewise landscape is extraordinary. A wild, voracious, and seemingly unstoppable fire will literally bow down to a Firewise landscape, creeping along the ground in submission to years of careful planning and good forest management. For Firewise communities that have experienced fire, the results have been outstanding and the photographic comparisons with untreated areas are astonishing.
For more information on Firewise, visit www.firewise.org. The Washington Department of Natural Resources and your local conservation district are also good sources of information. WSU Extension also has several fire-related publications available. These publications are available for purchase and/or download online or by calling WSU Publications at 1-800-723-1763.
- Fire-Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes (PNW 590) – https://pubs.wsu.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=14993
- Reducing Fire Risk on your Forest Property (PNW 618) – https://pubs.wsu.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=15404
One final thought is that a large majority of the wildfires in Washington are the result of debris burning that got out of control. If you are planning to burn debris on your property, make sure you are extremely careful and consult with the proper authorities (DNR and/or your local fire district) to make sure that it is safe and legal to burn and that you have the proper permits. If you think being the victim of a wildfire is bad, just imagine being the cause.
By Kevin W. Zobrist
WSU Regional Extension Specialist, Forest Stewardship