By Gordon Williams
One Sunday in late June, a man lit a fire to burn some debris near Yakima WA. The man — not publicly identified — knew the dangers of setting an open fire in wildfire season, so he checked several times to make sure the fire had been extinguished. Even so, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic, an ember from the not-quite-extinguished fire started a wildfire that burned 15 acres of rangeland and damaged at least one building.
That wasn’t a big fire by Washington standards. At around the same time, the Wenas Valley fire in Yakima County burned 1,500 acres, forced the evacuation of 75 families and led the American Red Cross to open a shelter for displaced residents. Small as it was, that rangeland fire went on the books as one of more than 500 wildfires that have hit the state thus far in 2018.
Further, it was only one of the many Washington state wildfires started by human carelessness. Hilary Franz, the state’s Commissioner of Public Lands, reckons that three-quarters of all wildfires in the state are caused by human activity.
In other words, if you want to know who plays the central role in preventing wildfires, just look in the mirror. Follow a few basic rules and use some common sense, and you can be pretty certain you will never be the cause of a wildfire. If you are found responsible for a fire, you will be asked to pay for the cost of extinguishing that fire.
First, know the risks. How great is the wildfire danger where you live? You will find the answer online in a map-by-county posted by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which Franz heads. The map is at fortress.wa.gov/dnr/protection/firedanger/. A county colored red is at extreme risk of fire. The fire risk is low in counties colored green.
The risk is high for most central Washington counties and extreme for Benton County (on July 15, 2018). Each jump in the fire risk imposes more burn bans — restrictions on what you can burn and how you must burn it. You can find the latest burn bans, county-by-county, at waburnbans.net.
You need to keep up with burn bans in your county because they can change quickly if local conditions worsen. Both Kitsap and Pierce counties imposed county-wide burn bans on July 12. The ban permits small recreational fires in approved fire pits, but prohibits backyard burning of debris or garden waste.
Your local news outlets, the local fire district or your county department of emergency management can tell you what the burn rules are for where you live. Know what those rules are before starting any outdoor fire, no matter how small or how closely you intend to keep watch.
Second, pay attention to Red Flag alerts issued by the National Weather Service when the combination of low humidity, strong winds and parched vegetation raises the threat of wildfires. A Red Flag Watch indicates the threat is serious. A Red Flag Warning indicates the threat is extreme. Common sense says not to burn anything out of doors on Red Flag days.
There’s lots more you can do to prevent wildfires. There is a list of wildfires “dos” and “don’ts” on the Department of Natural Resources website at dnr.wa.gov/WildfirePrevention.
Before starting any fire outdoors — even if there are no restrictions to prohibit it — make sure there is nothing nearby that might burn. On land managed by the DNR, fires must be in approved fire pits but be careful before starting a fire anywhere. Before you light the first match, have a shovel and a bucket of water close by. Don’t assume a fire is out just because it looks out. Touch it to make sure it feels cold before you walk away. “If it is too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave,” says the DNR Wildfire Protection guide. “Drown the fire before you leave,” says Public Lands Commissioner Franz.
Heat from a vehicle can set off a fire. “Do not park vehicles in dry grass areas, as residual heat from exhaust systems can ignite the dry grass,” says the DNR guide. “Be sure recreational vehicles have operating spark arresters.”
And there is more still. “It’s always illegal to light fireworks or use incendiary ammunition or exploding targets on DNR-protected land,” says the Wildfire Prevention Guide. In fact, it is best not to discharge a weapon or set off fireworks in any area that might burn. The fire that ravaged the Columbia River Gorge in 2017 was started by a youngster setting off a firecracker.
The DNR guide even offers fire prevention tips when you do home gardening during dry conditions. For instance: don’t set a hot tool down on dry grass or leaves. Also, keep the exhaust from any engines you use away from vegetation that might burn. And finally, “Stay home for an hour after finishing your work so you’re around to notice if anything begins to smolder and smoke.”
None of these rules is particularly burdensome. And following them — especially when the risk of fire is elevated — could help check what has been a worrisome jump in the number of wildfires, and maybe save some lives as well.
(Note: This is the third of three articles on wildfires: why there are more of them, how to protect yourself in wildfire season, and how to keep from starting a wildfire..)