Fires are a fact of life in eastern Washington. For those of us living in forested areas it’s not a question of IF a fire will come but of WHEN and how damaging it will be when it does come. Washington Department of Natural Resources, WSU Extension, county fire districts, conservation districts, and dedicated “fire people” from across a spectrum of government agencies have promoted a “Firewise” program to landowners in forestlands or “WUI” (Wildland Urban Interface) locations. Firewise outlines specific steps that landowners can implement to protect their homes and forests against fire.
Washington state is blessed with professional, experienced, well-trained and dedicated firefighters who work well together between all the agencies involved. They work hard to protect resources and save lives. As a landowner, it is critical for you to know where fire services in your area are likely to come from. It also is important to understand that just because the fire station a mile away has robust firefighting capabilities for both wildland and structural fire, they may not be the entity that responds first. During fire season, fire engines are sometimes dispatched to other areas when there is a dire need for this equipment and there are no current local fires (some equipment and crews will ALWAYS be left to fight local outbreaks). In some cases, for example, an outbreak of multiple lightning strikes, local crews may not be able to get to every fire immediately and more distant resources may need to be called in.
Landowners need to prepare for a bad- or worst-case fire scenario. Fire professionals repeatedly impart these key points for treating forest and vegetation around your home:
1) Create a “defensible space” – a 30-foot area that is free of any flammable vegetation large enough to, if burned, generate enough heat or flame to ignite your home;
2) Thin and prune forest stands to reduce tree density, remove “ladder fuels” and lift the crowns of trees left on site above the forest floor to reduce the chances of a ground fire moving into tree crowns; and
3) Remove dead vegetation from a 100-feet area around your house, paying particular attention to vegetation on the side of the house from which prevailing summer winds arrive.
Plan, design and layout your home and outbuildings to help firefighters help you protect your property against wildfire. The following actions are recommended:
- Install good signage – something highly visible by day or night that clearly identifies your address. Reflective letters and numbers at least 4” high, placed on an easily viewed area at the head of your driveway are recommended.
- Have at least two access roads (one can be a rough emergency only route but must be navigable in that emergency),
- Maintain a driveway big enough for a firetruck, making sure road bed and any bridges can support the weight of a fire engine with a full load of water in it.
- Maintain a turnaround area near structures on your property that is large enough for a firetruck to turn around in (generally a 50-foot radius).
- Make sure your roof is made from non-flammable materials
- Clean your rain gutters, cover vents and openings with wire mesh screens to keep out falling embers and make sure there is no flammable debris or firewood stored under decks or in areas abutting your house.
- Maintain a water source on your property firefighters can tap into.
If you follow these guidelines, your house is significantly more likely to survive a fire than it otherwise would be. Importantly, preparing appropriately can give you an edge to cover the element of uncertainty when a fire arrives in your neighborhood – how big will the event be and how scarce or abundant will local firefighting resources be when you need them? Enjoy your forest property but enjoy it with full awareness of the fire-driven ecology of the area in which we live and the firefighting and emergency infrastructure available to us.
Check resources about building in wildland urban interface areas
This article was based on a discussion at a “Fire Behavior Workshop” held in Dayton, Washington,on April 30, 2015. The contributions of presenters and resource professionals at this meeting included Paul Oester and Dan Leavell, OSU Extension; Rick Turner, Columbia County Fire District #3; Lisa Naylor, Blue Mountain RCDC; and Tom Schoenfelder, DNR, as well as the interested, knowledgeable and highly engaged workshop attendees who compelled and contributed to this discussion.
By Steve McConnell, regional WSU extension forestry specialist, firstname.lastname@example.org