Until the fall rains return, we will have an extremely high risk of a wildland fire extending into urban areas in all parts of Western Washington.
Wildland fires in the United States are becoming commonplace. There have been significant fires all throughout the West and British Columbia in the last month with individual homes and even neighborhoods being lost to fire. In California, the wildland fire season is now year-round.
Typically, the wildland fire season here in Washington begins in June and heats up in the months of July, August and September. While it is true that the majority of wildland fires occur east of the Cascades, the West Side is vulnerable.
If you asked people to list the natural hazards and risks that we here in Western Washington should pay attention to, that list would likely include earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, river and urban flooding, mud slides and the like. It is unlikely that many people other than firefighters and emergency managers would even mention the danger of a forest fire in Western Washington.
What most people don’t realize is that the wildland fire risk is not confined to Eastern Washington. Ask any professional firefighter and they will tell you that each year we here in Western Washington during the months of July through September and into October are sitting on a ticking time bomb that will only be defused when our normally wet autumn weather returns. Until then, we will have an extremely high risk of a wildland fire extending into urban areas in all parts of Western Washington.
We have enjoyed an early onset of summer with dry weather that began in June. This does not bode well for the rest of this summer and the fire conditions we can expect to have until the rains return in October.
Much of our highest population density areas exist in an “urban forest” environment. This is not just the foothills of the Cascades, but extends into the city limits of urban and suburban cities. We have entire communities nestled in wooded areas with green belts running throughout and parklike forested greenspaces. Typically, none of the “Fire Wise” practices used in Eastern Washington to reduce the impact of a wildland fire spreading have been applied by homeowners here on the West Side.
Short term, there are a few measures you can take to protect your own home.
• Clear debris from your roof. This includes cleaning gutters of dry leaves and needles.
• Remove tree limbs that overhang your roof. Limb up your trees so a fire spreading on the ground cannot leap to the tree canopy and spread from tree to tree.
• Move woodpiles away from your home. Don’t provide a supply of flammable materials by having the woodpile stacked next to your house.
• Keep vegetation away from your home, especially those types of bushes and trees that have a high sap content and can flame up like a torch when on fire.
There are many other steps you can take and a good website for advice on protecting your home is www.firewise.org.
Lastly, one of the best opportunities long-term to protect your home is choosing the most fire resistant roofing materials possible. Some homeowner associations still have covenants that require wood shake roofs as a roofing option. I know, because where I live there is a requirement for either tile or wood shake roofs. I had to replace my wood shake roof with another shake roof because I could not convince my neighbors to adjust their value system to include protecting their homes from wildland fires — a danger I could not convince them exists.
Remember that a firestorm will eventually happen here on the west side. It will be a predictable surprise to some and a danger to all.