By Gordon Williams
In most years, wildfires don’t become a serious threat in Washington until mid-summer when the days heat up and vegetation dries out. Things seem to be going a different way in 2021, with fires coming much earlier and much more frequently than usual.
In a single week in late April, the state’s Dept of Natural Resources responded to 91 wildfires that brought the state’s total to 171 fires so far in 2021, with 117 in April alone. None have been major blazes, and none have required an emergency response from the American Red Cross. But the takeaway is clear: Wildfires are a fact of life in Washington, they will become more frequent as summer approaches and the time to prepare your defenses against wildfires is now.
If you think the wet winter we just lived through lessens the fire risk, the forestry experts at Washington State University (WSU) are quick to set things straight. A release from the school says, “While it’s hard to envision raging fires while the Cascade Mountains are covered in deep snow, this year’s wet, warm winter could contribute to yet another round of destructive wildfires.”
All the rain may have damped things down, but it also could spur the growth of ground plants that fuel wildfires. WSU Forester Sean Alexander says that given today’s forest fuel situation, and the drought brought on by climate change, “It’s more a question of when, not if, a wildfire will come through your property.”
When it comes to how to protect your property from fire, there is plenty of guidance. The Red Cross offers a Wildfire Safety Checklist with advice on how to prevent fires, how to respond when fire threatens and how to return safely after a fire. There is more from the Washington Dept of Natural Resources, and more still from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
All the advice boils down to one point: If it can burn, keep it away from the house.
Follow that rule in your spring clean-up. Clean leaves, pine needles and twigs from the roof and gutters. Then keep them clean through the summer. Repair damaged windows, screens, shingles, and roofing tiles so flaming embers can’t get inside the house. Cover the chimney and all vents with 1/8th-inch hardware cloth. Use the same mesh to seal off openings beneath porches and decks.
Move anything flammable at least 30 feet from your house. That would include woodpiles, composting heaps, storage bins, trash, paint cans and the like. Propane storage tanks should be at least 50 feet from the house.
Plantings close to the house may look attractive, but they can burn in a wildfire and spread flames to your house. Break up large stretches of vegetation with paths, driveways, and walkways to slow the spread of fire. Keep vegetation away from such outbuildings as sheds or a garage, and far away from propane tanks. Organic mulch is highly flammable; use it sparingly.
Prune trees so no tree spreads its canopy closer than 10 feet from your home. You don’t want branches lower than six feet from the ground (and 10 feet is better). Trees within 60 feet of the house should have at least 12 feet between canopy tops. Trees within 100 feet of the house should have tops at least six feet apart.
Remove all dead trees and plants. Mow the lawn and keep the grass short all summer. Remove any “ladder fuel” — plants growing beneath trees that would allow fire to climb into the canopy. Keep vegetation away from pine and juniper trees. They contain oils and resins that can catch fire easily.
Invest in a hose that will stretch to cover your entire property. You would use it to drench everything should fire approach. Make sure your house address is well illuminated and easily visible from the street should you need emergency units to respond to a fire. Be especially vigilant when your weather forecast includes red flag days — days when dry, windy conditions raise the danger of fire.
Obey any burn bans — restrictions on setting fires when the wildfire danger is high. This April‘s wildfire epidemic brought burn bans to much of Washington — more evidence that the 2021 wildfire season could be very bad indeed.