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 

Never Too Early to Plan for Late Fall-Early Winter Outdoor Burning

winter-time burn piles
Building these slash piles many weeks before burning allowed the materials to dry out and be almost fully consumed when eventually burned. Photo: U.S. Forest Service.

With fall weather just around the corner people are starting to think of when and how they will burn this year’s silviculture (forestry-related) debris.

In this article I will focus on outdoor burning under Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rules. The rules apply to burning silvicultural material (wood, branches, bark, etc., left after thinning, pruning or harvesting forest trees) on lands that are:

  • Under DNR wildfire jurisdiction (see insert below)
  • Outside of a designated Urban Growth Area (UGA).

Ten Tips for Success

Here are some tips to ensure you are successful and safe when burning silviculuture debris this fall and winter after temperatures cool and fire dangers recede.

  1. Know the rules – Visit DNR’s Outdoor Burning web page to see if you need a permit to burn. Not all outdoor fires require a permit. Whether or not you need a permit, be sure to call 1-800-323 BURN or check DNR’s fire danger web page before you burn. DNR monitors local fire dangers and air quality issues through the year and may need to restrict or shut down outdoor burning in some areas, even in winter.
  2. Locate the pile in a good place – Piles should be 10 to 20 feet away from trees, and 50 feet from structures. Larger slash piles may need to be further away. If protecting your trees is a concern, make sure to burn on a calm day. Wind can easily push a fire’s heat sideways and scorch trees more than 20 feet away. Be aware of what is under your slash pile, too, because burning can damage soil as well as tree roots.
  3. Building tall piles are better – A taller pile is better because it often will burn cleaner and hotter. Just like building a campfire you want to form a pyramid of material. At that bottom of that pyramid you’ll need tinder and kindling to get the larger material above to burn. Needles and small twigs are excellent sources of tinder and kindling to get your slash pile burning efficiently.
  4. Start building piles in spring and summer – Building burn piles in the spring and summer allows them to dry out before fall. Dry material ignites easily and will burn cleaner and more completely.
  5. Cover piles before fall rains – When summer nears its end, cover between a quarter and a third of your slash pile so there will be a dry spot to ignite it. Pick the area you cover carefully; it should have enough dry, fine fuels to easily ignite. Tarps or plastic sold in large sheets make excellent slash pile covers. For a more economical solution, check with local lumber yards to see if they are giving away used lumber wraps — the materials lumber mills use to cover the loads of 2×4’s they ship to lumber yards and home improvement stores.
  6. Build a fuel break around your pile – Clear away all flammable debris for at least 24 inches around your slash pile to prevent the fire from spreading. If your burn is one that requires a permit, follow any special directions indicated on the permit.
  7. Burn with snow – If you live where it gets cold enough for snow to stick on the ground, wait until a couple of inches of snow have accumulated before igniting your pile. If you are not in snow country, burn after several good rains to insure that the ground and any nearby vegetation are moist.
  8. Burn in the fall – Fall or early winter are great times to burn because your material will be dryer than if you waited until spring. Fall burning also takes advantage of the approaching wet, cold winter weather that can help assure the fire stays out after the burn. Statistically, most wildfires caused by escaped outdoor burning occur in the spring, not late fall or early winter.
  9. Ignite your pile with a propane torch – A propane torch is a safe and efficient way to get piles ignited. Never, ever use gasoline to ignite a pile. To see what can happen if you use gasoline, visit www.youtube.com and type in “gas brush piles ignition” to see videos on the many things what can go wrong when you use gasoline to ignite slash piles. Now that you’re online, google “propane torch” for find places to buy a propane torch if you don’t already have one.
  10. Check your pile – Check your pile after you think it is out. Use a shovel to dig in the pile’s ashes to ensure that it is truly out. Numerous spring and summer wildfires linked to outdoor burning are started by slash piles that were burned the previous winter, some even with snow on the ground! What happens is that a pile may burn down and appear to go out but some of the material will get mixed with dirt underneath and smolder throughout winter and into spring. Then, with warmer weather, the ground dries out, the still-smoldering material finally gets exposed to air and nearby dry materials. The result? The next wildfire. No matter how sure you are that your wintertime slash pile burn is out, check the pile again — at least twice — when temperatures warm up in spring.

How do I know if my land is protected from wildfire by DNR? Look at your annual property tax statement. If it contains a charge for the Forest Fire Protection Assessment (FFPA) then your land is under DNR’s wildfire protection jurisdiction. Owners of private and state “forest land” pay this fee to help support DNR’s wildfire preparedness, education, training and other protection activities. FFPA rates are established in law by the legislature (RCW 76.04.610), and are assessed on the unimproved forested or partially forested parcels, excluding structures.


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

Want answers to your questions about outdoor burning? Contact your nearest DNR Region Office, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Wildfire Corner: Is your Burn Pile Out? Really Out?

Small burn pile.
Small burn pile. Photo courtesy of CalFire.

Did you do some outdoor burning this winter and spring? If so, please read on because outdoor burning is the leading cause of wildfire in northeast Washington state.

You may be wondering, how does a burn pile become a wildfire? One of the leading reasons is “failure to extinguish” the pile.

Did you know that a pile burned in January can start a wildfire in July? People are often surprised that a pile they burned during the winter and then saw covered by three feet of snow, followed by four inches of rain and produced no visible smoke for six months can still start a fire in summer. It is true and this is how it happens:

The conscientious landowner burns the pile when fire danger is low and outdoor burning is allowed. The pile burns down but some of the material may be mixed in the dirt beneath the ash. Due to the scarcity of oxygen at the bottom of the pile, this material may continue to burn but very, very slowly. It can burn so slowly that no smoke is seen, and the heat produced is so minute that it does not melt any snow that falls on the top of the pile. When you feel the top of the ground with the back of your hand you’ll likely feel only cold ash. But, when summer arrives and the weather warms up, a piece of that slow burning wood near an outer edge of the pile may become exposed to air. The result could be a small flame. If that flame touches nearby dry grass or other dry vegetation, you have the next wildfire.

I have worked on numerous wildfires over the years that started from a pile that the landowner said was “out” and was sure had been out for months. Many times I have walked up a burn pile that looks like it is completely out. I may see no smoke and feel no heat when I touch the ground, but when I put my shovel into the pile and dig into the ash I might find burning material six inches, or maybe even a foot, below the pile’s surface.

What can you do to help ensure your burn pile is fully extinguished?

Use a shovel to dig down into the pile. Dig in several spots in each pile you burned.

Feel the ash with the back of your hand (not your palm). We use the back of our hand because it is more sensitive to heat and, of course, we do not want to get a painful burn on our fingers or palms. If the ash you’ve uncovered feels warm at all, dig deeper to find out where the heat is coming from.

Remember a fire is out only after you dig into it with a shovel and feel no heat in what you dig up. Always dig completely through the ash layer into the dirt below to be sure you’ve haven’t missed anything.

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

Fire and Forest Health

Although it is difficult not to think of fire from a destructive point of view, it is in fact a natural process of renewal, and a catalyst for promoting biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. Some plant species are actually adapted to fire. For instance, lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) have serotinous cones (seeds are released in response to an environmental trigger such as fire). These seeds are retained in the tree canopy for long periods until a fire burns through the stand, releasing thousands of seeds as the resin seal enclosing the cones melts. This feature allows lodgepole pine to reproduce prolifically following a fire.

Fire Regimes

The Pacific Northwest includes many types of vegetation and fire regimes, from frequent surface fires to infrequent high severity fires.

High severity fire regimes are generally located in cool, wet environments at higher elevations where subalpine forests are located. These forests typically consist of subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and whitebark pine. Fire intervals can range greatly (100-300 years), and typically destroy entire stands.

Moderate severity fire regimes tend to occur at mid-elevation zones where dry Douglas-fir forests persist. Other tree species found within this zone include grand fir, subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, western red cedar, western hemlock and western larch. Moderate severity fires occur at intervals of 25 to 100 years and leave a mosaic of lightly burnt to severely burned areas.

Low severity fire regimes are characterized by fires that occur at frequent intervals (1-25 years). Because fuels have a limited time to accumulate in these areas, returning fires tend to be of low intensity. Ponderosa pine forests are indicative of the low severity fire regime.

giant sequoia burn scars
Burn scars (white arrows) in the cross section of a giant sequoia. The numbers represent the year each fire occurred. Photo: Tom Swetnam.

Historic Conditions

Historically, the Pacific Northwest was subject to fires of a variety of frequencies, intensities and extents. How do we know what the historic fire regimes were? Some information comes from human sources such as records of explorers or from land surveyors as they were establishing section corners. Some information comes from the forested ecosystem itself, such as the presence of charcoal layers in the soil and the even-aged character of some forests. Trees themselves record history through the growth rings that develop each year. When a fire burns through an area, the growth rings may be scarred. A fire scar tells us the year the fire occurred and may also reveal the season of fire occurrence based upon the position of the scar (photo).

Historically, the dry forests of the Pacific Northwest experienced low and mixed severity fire regimes. Low severity, frequent fires eliminated fuel ladders; elevated tree crown bases; reduced competition for site resources among surviving trees, shrubs, and herbs; promoted the growth of a low and patchy shrub and herb cover; and cycled nutrients from foliage and branches into the soil. This resulted in forests dominated by large, widely spaced, fire-tolerant ponderosa pine with little accumulation of coarse woody debris on the forest floor. Severe fire behavior and effects were uncharacteristic of dry forest-dominated landscapes.

Current Conditions

Wildfire size, severity and frequency have increased, particularly in the lower elevation dry forests. This is due in part to past and present fire suppression efforts. These forests now contain heavy fuel loads, a shift in the dominant tree species, smaller than average tree size and multi-layered canopies that act as fuel ladders. These conditions result in high intensity fires in areas that previously did not experience them.

In addition to wildfire size, severity and frequency, fire suppression efforts have affected general forest health. Douglas-fir and true firs are not as well adapted to dry sites as ponderosa pine and western larch. As a result these firs suffer physiological stress when subjected to hot, dry summers and, especially, drought. Stressed trees are more likely to succumb to insect and disease problems such as bark beetles and root disease. The presence of great numbers of stressed and dying trees offers an abundance of food to sustain insect populations and lead to insect outbreaks of epidemic proportions.

Models projecting climate change and fire patterns indicate that the frequency and extent of fire will increase due to increased temperatures, earlier spring snow melt and longer fire seasons. These projections suggest that there is an immediate need for forest managers to mitigate and adapt to increased wildfire events in order to sustain forest landscapes.

Accumulated fuels in dry forests need to be reduced so that when fire occurs, rather than becoming a conflagration that destroys the entire stand, it is more likely to burn along the surface at low-moderate intensity, consuming many small trees and restoring forest resilience to future drought, insect and disease problems and wildfire. Various combinations of thinning, slash treatments and prescribed burning can be used for restoration. Visit the Washington State Department of Natural Resources website for information about cost-share opportunities to help private landowners in eastern Washington with these tasks.

Most fires are human caused, often due to neglected campfires, sparks, irresponsibly discarded cigarettes and more often than not: debris burning. Significantly fewer fires may be started by taking greater caution. Check online for the current fire danger and outdoor burning restrictions in your county.

By Melissa Fischer, forest health specialist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Northeast Region, melissa.fischer@dnr.wa.gov