By Gordon Williams
Making predictions is always chancy, since events seldom play out exactly as you think they will. But here is a prediction that is likely to be 100 percent on the money: Demands on Red Cross resources — human and financial — are likely to increase significantly in years to come.
What makes it likely that prediction will come true is the convergence of two ominous trends affecting Washington State.
First, changing weather patterns associated with climate change have worsened the outlook for wildfires. The increased fire danger is particularly great in the more thickly populated Western part of the state where even small fires can cause considerable human distress.
Second, because of the way the state has developed, Washington has a huge number of dwellings close to where wildfires are likely to break out. It’s called the “wildland-urban interface” or WUI.
The WUI is the zone where the wildlands end and human development begins. An article by Associated Press writer Tom James describes forest-edge development as: “Heavy vegetation that spills into backyards, often pressing against houses in neighborhoods with few escape routes.” Washington, it turns out, has a huge number of people living in the WUI.
You might think California is the most vulnerable state. After all, the 2018 Camp fire killed 86 people and left 13,000 people homeless. And California does have approximately 490,000 dwellings in the WUI, according to Ashley Blazina, community wildfire preparedness coordinator for the Washington Department of Natural Resources. But Blazina is quick to add that Washington has approximately 951,000 homes in the WUI — almost twice as many vulnerable dwellings as California,
Obviously, the goal for everyone in Washington is to keep wildfires from starting in the first place. While some fires are started by natural causes, Blazina says that more than 90 percent of all wildfires in Western Washington are caused by human activity.
You can keep from being the human who starts a fire by following restrictions on when and where you can burn.
- Keep outdoor fires in approved fire pits, and drown the fire before you leave. If the fire is still too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave unattended.
- Don’t park cars on dry, flammable grass since the heat from the vehicle could trigger a fire.
- When gardening, don’t set hot tools on dry grass.
- Try to mow before 10 a.m. when the fire danger is typically lower.
Make sure your home and grounds are as fire resistant as possible. “Start with your house and work outwards,” says Blazina, “Sometimes the house is the most flammable thing you have on your property.”
- Clear away anything that can burn — dead leaves, pine needles, downed branches — from the roof and gutters.
- The roof itself should be made of Class A material, such as metal, concrete, clay roofing tiles, or fiberglass asphalt shingles. Class A material offers the highest resistance to fire,
- Keep fire embers from penetrating your house by covering all possible entry points — the chimney for instance, and any vents — with eighth-inch metal mesh. Replace any broken or missing screens or shingles to keep embers out. Wildfires move by leaps and bounds, spread by embers which Blazina says can fly a mile or more from the main fire.
Learn how to defend your “home ignition zone” against fire. That is the ground around your home, up to 100 or more feet out. Most critical is the immediate zone, which includes the home, any attached structures and a five-foot strip of land surrounding the house.
Clear out anything that might burn — firewood, mulch, dead trees and branches, fallen leaves. Replace vegetation that might burn with gravel or crushed stone.
In the intermediate and extended zones (five to 100 feet from the home) clear vegetation from under trees so flames can’t spread up.
- Prune trees six feet from the ground.
- Space trees at least 10 feet apart (more if you live on a slope), so flames don’t spread from one tree to another.
Your overall fire risk can be further reduced if your neighbors take similar fire reduction measures, so Blazina stresses a community approach to living with wildfire. She cites several organizations that can help turn fire prevention into a community-wide undertaking.
- The Firewise USA program helps communities assess their wildfire risks and develop fire prevention plans that fit in with their needs. For more information, visit Firewise USA.
- Eastern Washington residents can contact the Washington DNR Landowner Assistance Program.
- The Ready, Set, Go! Program, managed by the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs, aims to help local fire departments teach wildfire safety to the communities they serve. More information is available online at www.wildlandfirersg.org.
- The Washington Fire Adapted Communities (FAC) Learning Network helps communities manage their wildfire risk. Find the network at fireadaptedwashington.org.