By Gordon Williams
A firecracker, tossed by a 15-year old boy, started the fire that ravaged the Columbia River Gorge in the spring of 2018–burning for three months and scorching 50,000 acres. At almost the same time, a trash fire, near Yakima WA, not properly extinguished, burned 15 acres and damaged a building.
Taken together, the two fires should drive home the point that most wildfires are started by human carelessness or human folly. Hilary Franz, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands, reckons that three-quarters of all wildfires in the state are caused by human activity. Studies by the U.S. Forest Service put the share of wildfires caused by humans as high as 85 percent.
Franz warns that 2019 is likely to be a bad year for wildfires. In fact, the 2019 wildfire season got off to an early start with a rash of fires in March and April. With conditions set for a high-risk season and the knowledge the most wildfires are caused by human activity – the message is clear: The outlook for wildfires would be a whole lot better if only people exercised greater care and started fewer fires.
Make yourself wildfire smart by knowing the wildfire danger where you live or plan to vacation. You will find the answer online in a map-by-county posted by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. LINK: https://fortress.wa.gov/dnr/protection/firedanger/
When a state shows up in red, the fire danger is extreme. 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 https://waburnbans.net/. You need to keep up with burn bans in your county because they can change quickly if local conditions worsen.
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 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 https://www.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. Clear everything flammable for at least five feet around the fire. On land managed by the DNR, fires must be in approved fire pits but be careful before starting a fire anywhere. Keep all fires at least 50 feet from any structure.
Before you light the first match, have a shovel and a connected water hose or a bucket with at least five gallons 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. Keep the Columbia River Gorge fire in mind and never discharge a weapon or set off fireworks in any area that might burn.
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.