How to stay safe in a busier-than-normal wildfire season

Spring in the Okanogan, an area of Washington State that has seen repeated years of damage from wildfires.

By Gordon Williams

As Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz knows a thing or two about wildfires. When she calls the state’s wildfire situation a “crisis” that is “getting worse”, it is a warning worth paying attention to. And that grim forecast is echoed by the government’s National Interagency Coordinating Center, which warns of an active year for wildfires statewide and a “significant” wildfire season in Western Washington. The agency says wildfire activity in the West will be “above normal” through August. 

The takeaway from all this is clear: The danger from wildfires is high and the sensible response is to do all you can to protect your home and family from fire. Fortunately, there is much you can do to reduce the risk. And figures from Franz’s Department of Natural Resources say a few preventive steps could have saved 80 percent of the homes lost to wildfires.

May is Wildfire Awareness Month, making it the right time to review your defenses against wildfire and to improve those defenses where they fall short. You can start by heeding advice from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a non-profit group that works to reduce deaths and financial loss from fire.

First step is to make your home as fire resistant as possible. Clean the roof and gutters of dead leaves, pine needles or anything that might burn. Repair or replace missing shingles and broken screens so embers don’t penetrate. Keep embers out by covering chimneys and vents with ⅛ inch metal mesh screening.

Can anything flammable around your home be replaced by stuff that won’t burn — shingles, siding, porches, awnings? The NFPA says, “Class A fire-rated roofing products offer the best protection.”

Next, learn about the home ignition zone — the ground that immediately surrounds your home. Three areas make up the home ignition zone. Here they are with fire protection tips for each:

Immediate zone (your home and five feet out). Clear anything that could burn out of this zone — firewood, mulch, flammable plants, trash. Don’t store anything flammable beneath decks and porches. Clear anything flammable from around propane tanks. Replace vegetation that might burn with gravel or crushed stone.

Intermediate zone (five to 30 feet from your home). Clean vegetation from under trees so flames can’t climb into tree crowns. Canopy tops of trees within this zone should be spaced  18 feet or more feet apart to keep flames from spreading, Prune trees up to six to 10 feet from the ground. Make sure no tree canopy is within 10 feet of the house. Use walkways and patios to create firebreaks to slow the advance of flames. 

Extended zone (30 to 100 feet out). Remove small trees growing between mature trees. Remove vegetation that is close to outbuildings. Canopy tops of trees 30 to 60 feet from the house should be at least 12 feet apart; those 60 to 100 feet from the house at least six feet apart. 

No part of the state is completely safe from wildfires, so be alert to fire risk wherever you are. Fires used to be more common in drier Eastern Washington and less common in the wetter areas west of the Cascades. But we had 54 unseasonably early wildfires in the state in April and 53 of them were in Western Washington. And unlike floods, which follow a pretty predictable path, embers from wildfires can fly considerable distances to spread the flames.

How do you stay safe when fire is close by? You’ll find the answer in the Red Cross Emergency mobile device application, available at both the Apple Store and Google Play. Prepare by learning where nearby shelters are and the routes to get there. Listen to local radio and TV for the latest emergency information, including the best escape routes. Make sure street signs and house numbers are visible so emergency vehicles can find you. Evacuate immediately if you are ordered to. 

When fire threatens, back your car into the garage so you can pull out more quickly  Use the recycle or recirculate mode on home and car air conditioners to keep smoke and ash out. Hose down the roof and put sprinklers as far from the house as you can to wet down vegetation that otherwise might burn.

Finally, get your community involved in the Firewise Communities/USA initiative administered by the NPFA and aimed at getting community-wide participation in an effort to manage wildfire risk. Around 150 Washington communities participate in the Firewise program managed locally by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Do a search for “Firewise” or go the local website at www.dnr.wa.gov/firewise.

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