Wildfire Corner: Explaining the New Fire Danger Rating System in Eastern Washington

By Guy Gifford, Northeast Region landowner assistance forester & fire prevention and Firewise coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, guy.gifford@dnr.wa.gov

In Eastern Washington, a new fire danger rating system has been implemented, no longer based on county boundaries, but instead on geographic areas that share similar fuels, climate, and topography in addition to administrative boundaries.

The change to Fire Danger Rating Areas (FDRAs) was implemented with the intent of having a common fire behavior component and was developed through interagency collaboration to help clarify the message among multiple agencies. Western Washington fire danger ratings and burn restrictions will continue to be implemented along county boundaries.

While the county boundary system made it easy for people to know what the fire danger rating and burn restrictions were wherever they are, it did not account for the variability of fire danger caused by physical geographic factors. This was readily apparent, for instance, in counties along the east slopes of the Cascades where a county may stretch from the Columbia River to the top of the Cascade Mountains.

The new system is capable of presenting low fire danger in the high Cascades and high fire danger below in the valleys.

Outdoor burning restrictions administered by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources in Eastern Washington will also follow the Fire Danger Rating Area boundaries. Also keep in mind that additional burn restrictions may be put on by local city and county agencies.

Whether it is a campfire or you are burning forest debris, always check with DNR and your local authorities before you burn. You can check current DNR burn restrictions by calling 1-800-323-BURN (2876) or check out the DNR fire danger rating and burn restriction website.

Large Fire Information

Want to stay up to date on large wildfires happening in Washington and throughout the country? While there is a lot of information on wildfires on the internet, it can be difficult to know which website to go to. Below are a handful of informative websites:

  • Inciweb – Most large fires, and some prescribed burns, will have their own webpage hosted on Inciweb. These webpages are normally created by an Incident Management Team (IMT), so typically only fires that require an IMT will be found here. Some grass fires that burn out quickly, for instance, will not have an IMT and won’t be found on Inciweb.
  • The “Sit Report” – The National Interagency Fire Center is another great website for a quick summary on what is happening across the nation. The “Sit Report,” which stands for Incident Management Situation Report, shows how many fires were started the previous day across the nation and also reports on all new large fires.  To see the current report, click the link above and find it on the left under the “Fire Information” heading.
  • Northwest Interagency Coordination Center – This website has a wealth of information specifically on Washington and Oregon fires. In the center of the page, you will find several different links that will give you the details on current fires in these two states, including the potential for significant fire in the next seven days.  On the left side, beneath the heading “Logistics/Dispatch,” you can see what various aircraft, crews, and other resources are available today to fight fires and also where those resources may be committed to for the day.
  • Canadian Wildfire Information System – If you’re near the border, or are just interested in what’s happening up north, this website will give you information on Canadian fires.

Wildfire Corner:  2018 Wildfire Season in Review

Depending on where you live it may be raining or snowing, but what we do not see on the landscape is wildfire.  So now that it’s over, let’s take a look at the 2018 wildfire season.

Wildfire starts for the Department of Natural Resources (these are fires on DNR jurisdiction lands) was the highest on record at 1,098. Statewide, all responding agencies (federal, local and state) reported 1,744 wildfire starts.

In 2018, 47 wildfires were Type 1, 2 or 3 incidents, which are considered to be large wildfires. These fires are managed by an Incident Management Team.  Fifteen of these wildfires were type 1 and 2, and 32 were type 3 incidents. Type 1 incidents are the most complex wildfire followed by type 2 and type 3 incidents being less complex. Check out the FEMA site for detailed definitions of these incident types.

Lightning was responsible for 9 percent of the wildfire starts in Washington state*, but outdoor burning was the leading cause of wildfire starts. See the following short video on wildfire starts and outdoor burning.

If you are going to be doing any outdoor burning this winter, make sure you know the rules before you light. Check out this site for rules on outdoor burning and look here for some additional tips. Be safe!

*Fire cause data is for DNR jurisdiction wildfires.

2018 Wildfire Season by the Numbers

DNR Jurisdiction Fires

  • 1,098 fires (most fires in one year on record)
  • 93 percent of fires kept at 10 acres or less
  • 107,387 acres burned

Statewide Fires – All Jurisdictions

  • 1,744 fires
  • 433,834 acres burned

By Guy Gifford, landowner assistance forester & fire prevention and Firewise coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, guy.gifford@dnr.wa.gov

Wildfire Corner: Reducing the Intensity – the Extended Zone  

Wildfire season has finally slowed but, like it or not, now is the time to start getting your property ready for the 2019 fire season.

You may remember from the last Wildfire Corner that the HIZ, also known as the Home Ignition Zone, is composed of three smaller zones:

Zone 1:  The Immediate Zone (AKA Be Ember Aware):  Distance 0 – 5 feet
Zone 2: The Intermediate Zone (AKA Lean, Clean and Green): Distance 5 – 30 feet
Zone 3:  The Extended Zone (AKA Reduce the Intensity):  Distance 30 to 300 feet

In the summer edition of Stewardship Notes we focused on Zone 1 – Be Ember Aware.  In this edition we will focus on Zone 3 – Reduce the Intensity Zone (keep an eye out for Zone 2 in the spring!). 

Zone 3 is the area outside of your yard and garden, most of us would call it our woods or forest.   This zone can extend up to 300 feet from the structure you are working around.  The goal in Zone 3 is to reduce the intensity of wildfire.  Instead of having 20 or 30-foot flames going through your property, we want much smaller flame lengths.  These smaller flames reduce the damage to your property and make firefighting resources more effective.
To accomplish this, we need to work on reducing the amount of fuel that can cause large flames.  Typically what gives us the large flames in a wildfire are trees.  So this article focuses largely on thinning the forest in your third zone.  Check out the Stewardship Notes article from August 2016 to learn about all of the benefits of forest thinning (besides wildfire protection).

From a fire perspective, we are trying to thin trees to get what we call “roads in the sky”.  Roads on the ground often act as a fire break by slowing or stopping fire spread, but we also want these fire breaks in our tree tops.  When you look up into your trees you should see a minimum of 5-6 feet between the tips of the tree branches.  This creates fire breaks in the sky to reduce the chance of tree-to-tree ignition.  Further spacing is recommended on steep slopes and as you get closer your house.

If you prefer, you can leave small clumps of trees as you thin your forest, but be sure to isolate those tree clumps from surrounding trees and other clumps you may create.  People will often leave these for wildlife or aesthetic values.   Check out this article to learn how to conduct a wildlife friendly fuel reduction project.

Once you have thinned your trees the next step is to remove “ladder fuels”.  Ladder fuels carry fire into your tree canopy from the ground.  A tree with branches that start at the ground and reach up to the canopy create a “ladder” of fuel that can carry flames from the bottom to the top.  Ladder fuels can also occur when you have grasses or brush in contact with low branches.

To eliminate this ladder we recommend pruning the branches off of your trees.  It is recommended to prune them up to ten feet, but never more than half the tree (so if you have a 12-foot tall tree, you only prune up to six feet).  This is to maintain a healthy living crown in the tree.  Disposing of the pruning slash is an important next step.  Most homeowners will burn it in piles or chip the material.  The September 2017 Stewardship Notes has an excellent article on burning piles.   However, either method will help reduce fuels on the ground and the height of flames, were a wildfire to occur.  If you decide to chip, the material should be piled or scattered.  When scattering, keep chip depth less than six inches, preferably less than three inches where possible.  See the April 2018 Stewardship Notes article about chipping.

Enjoy the nice fall weather and start thinning some of your trees to be ready for the 2019 fire season.  Keep an eye out for the Spring Stewardship Notes edition for the final article in this series covering Zone 2.  As always, for more information on preparing your home for wildfire, check out the National Fire Protection Association website.

By Guy Gifford, landowner assistance forester & fire prevention and Firewise coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, guy.gifford@dnr.wa.gov

Wildfire Corner: Be Ember Aware!

Flamable dry plant matter
Dried plant matter and the peat moss often found in hanging baskets are extremely flammable. Photo: Guy Gifford

It is time to go on vacation but before you leave, ask yourself: Will my home survive a wildfire? I’ll share with you some simple things you can do right before you go on vacation to decrease the chance of your home burning should a fire occur in your neck of the woods while you’re away.

Embers, not flames, from wildfires are what ignites most of the homes that burn during a wildfire. Embers are small pieces of burning vegetation that are carried into the air and can often land over a mile away. Another way to look at embers is as matches falling from the sky. So what can a homeowner do before going on vacation, or at any time? Here are a few tricks that take less than 15 minutes to implement.

Focus on the Home Ignition Zone

When talking fire, we call the area around your home the Home Ignition Zone, which consists of three smaller zones. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on what is called the “Immediate Zone,” where ember awareness is critical. This zone is defined as the area your house sits on plus 5 feet on any side (click here to learn about the other parts of the home ignition zone).

In the Immediate Zone, it is very important to get rid of anything that a wandering ember could ignite. One way to think of this when looking around your Immediate Zone is: Could a single match get a fire started here? If the answer is yes, remove that material!

Some common items we see in the Immediate Zone that an ember could ignite are:

  • Newspaper in a recycle bin
  • Woodpiles
  • Cardboard
  • Dry leaves and needles
  • Door mats made from flammable material.
  • Wood decking (click here to learn more about wood decking)
  • Containers with dead plants (many hanging planters contain peat moss, which easily ignites)
  • Dead plants
  • Any other flammable material

While this list may seem long, the process of identifying and removing fire ignition hazards is easy: Simply walk around your house and look for anything that could catch fire if an ember landed on it. When you find something remove it.

Today I walked around my house and storage sheds and found a pair of cotton gloves, some 2x4s, and a pile of dry leaves. I put the gloves and 2x4s in the shed; the leaves I raked up and put in my compost bin (which is 30 feet from my house). Within 15 minutes I had completed a fire safety check for potential ember hazards around my house. Now I can leave knowing that I have reduced the chance of an ember burning my house down.

Are there more things you should do to protect your home from the next wildfire? There are lots of other tasks you could do in the other parts of the Home Ignition Zone, but they take longer than 15 minutes. Some tasks are better to do in different seasons.

Keep an eye out for the next installment of Wildfire Corner, where we will discuss the other ignition zones — the Intermediate Zone (5 to 30 feet from the home) and the Extended Zone (30 to 100 feet or more) — and the prevention goals for each in more detail. For now, make sure you check your Immediate Zone before you go on your summer vacation.

Whether it’s just for the weekend or a two-week road trip, always remember to do your fire safety check!

Check out this website for more information on the Be Ember Aware program.

By Guy Gifford, landowner assistance forester and fire prevention and Firewise coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, guy.gifford@dnr.wa.gov

Wildfire Corner: Start Planning for the next Disaster

Source: Emergency Mgmt Ontario, Canada
It’s winter. Are you ready for the next disaster? It could be a wildfire, a major winter storm, an earthquake, or even a train derailment that spews harmful chemicals. In this and future articles we will look at ways to be prepared for disasters. There are some simple steps we can take now to reduce the impacts on us and our families when the next disaster occurs — whether it is natural or manmade.

Communicate with Family and Friends

Let’s talk first about communicating with your family and knowing everyone is safe during and immediately after a disaster. During a one of these events cell phones and land lines may be disrupted. With this potential problem in mind, develop a backup plan and ensure that everyone close to you knows how to use it.

Here’s an example of a post-disaster communications plan :

  1. Call each other on cell phones, but if this fails…
  2. Text each other (texting uses less bandwidth and may work when voice calls cannot get through).
  3. Place land line calls.
  4. Get in touch with your designated out-of-area contact who act as your communications hub. (Local call networks can become overloaded following a major incident but you may still be able to reach a long distance number. Ensure that everyone in your family knows to call this number and give that person a status update.)

Family members also can use other channels—email and social media—to communicate with each other. The most important thing to do now is develop a plan and share it with all family members and others with whom you want to stay in contact during and after an emergency.

Stay Informed

Whether you are at home or off on vacation, you will want to know whether your home was impacted by a disaster. Most counties have some type of Emergency Notification System to alert you of time-sensitive general and emergency information. These notifications do not always go to everyone but they try to target a geographic region based on zip codes, street names or the entire county. Reverse 9-1-1 is one example of this type of emergency notification. In the county where I live it is called Alert Spokane to see the Spokane County system, which offers to send notifications to an email address or a text them to a mobile phone. For these notification systems to work, you need to register with your county’s Department of Emergency Management, usually via its website. Click here for a list of county emergency websites in Washington state.

Remember, one of the first things to do before the next disaster is to develop a plan to communicate with your family and stay informed. How devoting a few minutes of your holiday gatherings to get this done?

In the next article we will talk about building a preparedness kit.

For more information on being prepared for the next disaster visit the website of the state Emergency Management Division.

by Guy Gifford, DNR Land Owner Assistance Forester, Fire Prevention and Firewise Coordinator–Northeast Region guy.gifford@dnr.wa.gov