Our wet spring brought a welcome reprieve from wildfires and smoke that have plagued Western Washington in recent years. But summer isn’t over by a long shot, and wildfire season is just getting started.
Several fires that started last week in Eastern Washington — one a brush fire that led to the evacuation of a small town southeast of Spokane — are a reminder of the danger and disruption caused by wildfires. Even closer, a brush fire threatened two homes in nearby Lakewood last weekend.
It’s not just Eastern Washington that’s at risk.
The weather on the west side of the mountains is growing hotter and drier due to climate change. That increases the likelihood and intensity of wildland fires in Western Washington, said Assistant Fire Chief Todd Meyer of Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One.
While this year’s wet spring lowers the risk initially, it also contributes to vegetation growth. That adds fuel to forests and grasslands in the dry season, meaning fires burn hotter and move more quickly. “It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Meyer said.
The 2020 Sumner Grade Fire near Bonney Lake was a wildland fire in Eastern Pierce County that caused the evacuation of thousands and destroyed a number of structures including homes.
The 2020 Sumner Grade Fire near Bonney Lake in Eastern Pierce County forced thousands to evacuate and destroyed homes and other structures. Another intense wildfire in Graham erupted in the same early September time frame. Both were caused by downed power lines igniting dry vegetation.
Read our story, then review the five action areas below with steps to mitigate your property’s wildfire risk. Many of the steps cost little, some cost only sweat and time.
State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz hammered home the risk at a press briefing Friday on the fires in Eastern Washington.
“We’ve been blessed to have a light fire season, but we need to be very aware that our fire season is now upon us, Franz said. “And with the hotter, drier conditions and windy conditions, fires can erupt very quickly. This is a prime part of the season for severe fire potential. As we’ve seen just in the past few days, it is going to likely get worse before it gets better.”
Franz urged people to “follow best practices” when outdoors and taking part in recreational activities. “Don’t be the spark,” she said. “In conditions like these, one might be all it takes.”
A 2020 brush fire in Gig Harbor — likely caused by sparks from a vehicle or a cigarette tossed from a window of a car on Highway 16 — spread to an acre along Cushman Trail. It threatened nearby commercial buildings, Meyer recalled.
“We were just on the cusp of evacuating places if the fire had gotten any bigger or was threatening more people,” Meyer said, in a video produced by his department that year to educate people about protecting their property and family from wildfire.
“It can happen even here in Gig Harbor,” Meyer said in a companion video.
“It’s all about reducing the risk,” he said. “We’re not going to eliminate it, but how do we reduce the risk?”
A fire crew from Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One fights a brush fire in 2019 at Murphy Drive and East Bay Drive.
The Firewise USA program of the National Fire Protection Association describes how communities and local governments can work together to create resilience to wildfire in their areas.
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“Even if it’s a down year, this is the time to think about, hey, what can we do to prepare,” Meyer said. “For me, it’s these communities beforehand having it done before the fire hits, for lack of better words. Doing the work before there’s smoke in the air.”
But Meyer said individuals needn’t wait for larger efforts to get underway to start picking off tasks that will protect their homes. The NFPA offers guidance for homeowners.
Even if you can’t do it all this year, something is better than nothing, Meyer said, quoting the trite but true adage: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Preparing your property and making an evacuation plan will help your family in the event of a wildfire or other natural disaster. It will also aid emergency responders by reducing the load on their resources.
You may have heard of the Wildland Urban Interface or WUI, defined by the Washington Department of Natural Resources as “those areas where human development meets areas that are covered in more than 50% wildlands (forests, sagebrush-steppe or grasslands). There’s also the “Wildland Urban Intermix” where structures intermingle with wildlands.
Living in the WUI or intermix areas does not automatically equate to high fire risk, according to the DNR. More important, says Meyer, is to assess the combination of risk factors specific to your property.
Alas, those features Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula residents find most endearing — stunning hillside views and waterfront properties — do add to the risk.
This graphic from the National Fire Protection Association illustrates the Home Ignition Zone concept, three designated areas within which getting rid of combustible materials is recommended to reduce wildfire risk. The theory is that reducing burnable materials in each of these zones will lead to layers of defense, as the fire passes quickly through without gaining a foothold.
The “Home Ignition Zone” concept was developed in the 1990s by retired USDA Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen. It is based on experimental research into how homes ignite due to the effects of radiant heat.
The HIZ has three sub-zones: immediate (zero to five feet); intermediate (five to 30 feet) and extended (30 to 100 feet, and up to 200 feet). The theory is that reducing burnable materials in each of these zones will lead to layers of defense against a wildfire, as the fire passes quickly through without gaining a foothold.
More important than getting hung up on precisely measured zones, said Meyer, is to assess what you can do: in the immediate perimeter of your home, in your landscaped yard, and in surrounding woodland, shrubby or grassy areas.
Each home is different. So, too, are each homeowner’s resources and capability.
The National Fire Protection Association identifies the immediate home area as the highest priority. But Meyer says people shouldn’t get hung up on a linear approach.
He suggests using the Home Ignition Zone as a guideline as you tailor-make make your wildfire mitigation plan. Start small on the low-hanging fruit (regardless of zone) while keeping sight of long-term goals.
Evaluate the following as they pertain to your property:
The Ready, Set, Go! Program, managed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, educates individuals on how to prepare for evacuation in the event of a wildfire or other natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and storms. There are three levels.
A fire crew in 2020 fights the Sumner Grade Fire near Bonney Lake, a wildland fire that caused the evacuation of thousands of East Pierce County residents and destroyed a number of structures including homes.
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