August 13, 2012, was a day that changed the way many people in Kittitas County viewed wildfire. It also changed the way I viewed and performed my job as Firewise and Fuels Reduction Coordinator at the Kittitas County Conservation District (KCCD).
Providing technical assistance to landowners on natural resource issues is our district’s main mission. In recent years, this has concentrated on irrigation efficiencies, fish barrier removal and other water related issues. In 2009, at the request from a Kittitas County commissioner, the district began offering cost-share and technical assistance for fuels reduction and forest health issues. Working with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Natural Resources Conservation Service, the state Fire Marshal, fire district personnel and various foresters in the area, the district completed the County Wildfire Protection Plan. This document helped target areas in the county that would be most prone to wildfire and allowed us to administer grant funding for fuels reduction. The first year was rather slow with assistance provided to landowners to complete three small fuels reduction projects totaling less than 5 acres for approximately $5,000.
Then, on August 13, 2012, the Taylor Bridge Fire tore through our county. This devastating fire burned more than 22,000 acres, prompted hundreds to evacuate, and destroyed 61 homes and numerous other structures. Not having experienced a fire of this magnitude, many people were apprehensive and had a lot of questions. DNR and firefighters were off fighting the fire, so KCCD stepped in and worked with other agencies in the county to provide assistance.
“The conservation district is able to fill in and help landowners during the high fire season when other agencies are actually fighting the fires. Landowners call and schedule visits at their homes to assess defensible space and wildfire survivability,” said Anna Lael, Kittitas County Conservation District Manager.
As the person in charge of the fuels reduction program, I saw requests increase from 3 to 4 per month, to 7 to 8 per day during the fire. If a fire is not burning in the county, the requests go down, but we still receive ten times the number of requests per month than we did prior to Taylor Bridge.
The district also offers information on how to trim and thin trees and remove brush that is considered a ladder fuel. These “ladders” (trees and brush that can move fire from the ground into the canopies of trees) are very important to remove. The spring prior to Taylor Bridge, we had worked with a landowner in the fire perimeter, treating approximately 10 acres of his land. We helped cost-share for a contractor to come in and limb branches 15 feet up, thin out trees that grew too close together, and removed ladder fuels. After watching the fire rage through our county, I did not think any of our efforts would stave off such a fast and destructive fire.
Fortunately, my doubts were unfounded as all six projects on which KCCD provided assistance survived thanks to the defensible space measures taken. As one landowner told us afterwards:
“Our cabin is the realization of a dream we first had in high school. We have been planning it, building it, refining it, and loving it and the land for 25 years. It is at the center of our plans for enjoying the remainder of our lives. Clearly, we do so appreciate your foresight, initiative, and hard work to get so much land prepped just in time for the ‘big one.’ We feel so very fortunate that our dream come true can live on, and certainly wish those who have lost theirs could have benefitted similarly from your program. We cannot thank you enough.”
In addition to cost-share, the district worked with Fire District #7 to train a fuels reduction/Firewise crew to assist landowners. Primarily, they provide a roving chipper for landowners who prune and thin their own trees and then stack the debris by their driveways for the crew to chip.
“Having had at least three volunteer firefighters working for both the fire district and the conservation district over the last four years has been our saving grace when wildfires broke out across eastern Washington,” said Fire District #7 Chief Russ Hobbs. “Having resources ready to respond in a timely manner is critical to our neighbors and our community at large. This program helps keep the firefighters employed and a reason to stay on at the fire district.”
The roving chipper has become quite a popular program and more than 14 communities in Kittitas County sign up for this event every year.
KCCD has helped administer nearly a half million dollars in cost-share projects each year since the Taylor Bridge Fire and the county continues to have devastating wildfires. In 2013, more than 74,000 acres burned in Kittitas County, and last year more than 66,000 acres burned. The demand for technical assistance and cost-share programs continues to grow.
Carolyn Berglund, a landowner who was evacuated in the Taylor Bridge Fire, summed up what she has advocated to her neighbors since the fire. Landowners need to take fuels reduction and Firewise efforts seriously and educate their neighbors so that communities are able to survive these devastating wildfires. By employing the principles of defensible space, “you make it easier to fight a fire and easier for a fire to go around you. It’s a sense of responsibility to the other people that are close by, and the community as a whole,” said Berglund.
By Suzanne Wade, GIS Specialist, Kittitas County Conservation District, www.kccd.net