October 16, 2016, marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the wildfire outbreak — Fire Storm ‘91 — that demonstrated the deadly hazards that can occur when urban development encroaches on wildlands.
The City of Spokane’s fire central dispatch center received its first wildfire call of the day at 8:49 a.m. on Oct 16. By noon all available county, local and Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fire resources had been committed to contain an unprecedented outbreak of wildfires in the area. By 9:00 p.m. local dispatch centers had fielded some 2,000 fire-related calls.
When everything finally calmed down and numbers were tallied it was discovered that 92 separate wildfires had burned more than 35,000 acres over a four-county area that included Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane and Stevens counties. In all, 114 homes were destroyed and two fatalities were linked to the fires.
Weather was a major factor on this day. No precipitation had been recorded in the previous 41 days and northeast Washington was in its fifth year of lower than average precipitation. Wind gusts of up to 62 mph on Oct. 16 caused the fires to spread rapidly. Wind also was a factor in fire starts when gusts pushed trees into powerlines.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) case study on Fire Storm ’91 concluded that homeowners can indeed take steps to reduce the risks of losing their homes and other structures to wildfire by creating “defensible space” to reduce flammability and fire intensity of the land surrounding their homes.
The NFPA also found that during Fire Storm ’91, homes that had 529 feet of defensible space had a 50 percent lower chance of being destroyed during the fire (see table: Home Loss vs. Defensible Space).
Since 1991 we have had numerous fire seasons where we lost structures. One common fact in all these fires is that homeowners can make a big difference by creating defensible space that reduces wildfire risks to their homes.
In 2002, the Firewise Community recognition program was launched to encourage homeowners to work with neighbors to reduce the impact of wildfire to their communities. Washington state residents have taken this message to heart; our state has the third highest number of Firewise Communities in the nation at 135. In 2016, we added 23 new Firewise Communities, the highest number of new communities in the nation. By the end of 2016 both of these numbers will have increased.
Washington State DNR has a goal of making Washington state the leader with the most Firewise Communities in the nation. To help communities become Firewise-recognized DNR created the Firewise Challenge and offers grants to help communities make themselves more resilient to the next wildfire.
If you want to learn more about what you can do to protect your home or your community from the next wildfire, call your local DNR region office. Be sure to also ask about grants available to help you and your neighbors become a Firewise Community.
For more information on making your home or community safe from wildfire, please call or visit a DNR regional office near you: