STEVENSON, Skamania County — When a fire burns close to your home, little things may make a big difference.

Thin layers of metal screen stretched across vents can keep embers from penetrating a combustible attic. Freshly cleaned gutters rob the fire of pine needles that form an easy source of ignition. Removing brush, firewood and low-lying limbs from around a house help create a more defensible space.

The need for such preventive work — and building with fire-resistant materials — has long been preached to those who live in the arid expanses of Washington and elsewhere in the West, where wildfires year after year claim homes and lives. In California, state law,  initially passed in 1965, requires such tasks for residences in certain high-risk areas.

But prevention efforts are also increasingly important on the wet, west side of the North Cascades, where the recent hot dry summers have offered a view of a warming world — caused by fossil-fuel combustion — that is forecast to include bigger and more frequent wildfires. For property owners, often the most powerful call to action is a close encounter with wildfire, such as the 2017 Eagle Creek conflagration that raced along the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, throwing off embers that sailed across the river to start a smaller fire on the Washington side a few miles from the home of Skamania County resident Julie Anderson.

When the fire flared, Anderson was in Alaska working for the National Park Service. For several weeks, she anxiously monitored — from long distance — the progress of the fire, which eventually burned through some 50,000 acres on the Oregon side and more than 250 acres on the Washington side of the Gorge. After she returned home, she trimmed and thinned the Douglas fir and hemlock on her 1-acre parcel, and gathered rocks and pebbles to lay down to improve defenses close by her house.

As winds kick up, the Eagle Creek fire races west down the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge on Sept. 4 in Cascade Locks, Oregon.
As winds kick up, the Eagle Creek fire races west down the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge on Sept. 4 in Cascade Locks, Oregon.

“The fire was a wake up, “Anderson said. “It’s unreal to think about what happens when all this fuel gets going.”

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Getting ahead 

Anderson is one of some 150 Skamania County homeowners who, since the Eagle Creek fire, have participated in risk-reduction efforts promoted by the Underwood Conservation District. The Southwest Washington government-funded organization offers technical assistance, and has paid for mobile chippers to grind up brush piles through a modest fire-prevention budget that tallies about $30,000 for 2019.

This work has received an added push from Tom Lannen, a Skamania County commissioner, who is on high alert to the risks of wildfire.

During the 2017 Eagle Creek fire, Lannen had embers land on his front porch, and last year was troubled by images of California drivers stuck in long lines of traffic as flames raged along the side of the roads leading out of Paradise.  He wondered whether a similar scenario could play out in his county, where one main highway along the north side of the Gorge would be the escape route in a major fire.

“All you got to do is put one tree down (over the highway), and now we’re them,” Lannen said. “We have to get ahead of this, and get people … prepared.”

Julie Anderson lays down pebbles as part of her work to create a zone of defensible space to help protect her property from  wildfire. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)
Julie Anderson lays down pebbles as part of her work to create a zone of defensible space to help protect her property from wildfire. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)

This year, the spring fire season was unusually active in Washington, before a stretch of cooler summer weather brought some relief. As of Monday, 88,246 acres have burned in the state, tracking below last year, when — by October — wildfires had burned through more than 438,830 acres.

In Skamania County, local officials hope a milder fire season does not lull residents into complacency. They have held a series of meetings to try to get more homeowners to embrace defensible space — and shoulder some of the responsibility for fire protection. On a damp day this month, a couple of dozen gathered in a community center in Stevenson to hear the conservation district’s Dan Richardson talk about this work — not as a one-time fix, but an ongoing effort that continues through the years.

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“I definitely don’t tell people that a particular home or community is safe or not safe,” Richardson said. “I  think of it as a [risk] dial that we can turn down.”

Risks in King County

The movement to create more defensible space also is gaining traction in King County, which abounds with homes tucked among fir and cedar, and sometimes topped by flammable cedar-shake roofs.

The trees have plenty of benefits. They provide shade and wildlife habitat, combat soil erosion and remove carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — from the air. And in some communities, tough preservation rules have made it difficult to thin community open spaces to reduce fire risks.

“Some of these covenants are really restrictive, and we have had to invest quite a bit of time to figure how we do the work,” said Mike Lasecki of the King Conservation District, who hopes that fire risks will be taken more into account as new developments are built.

The biggest risks are in some of the rural areas of the county surveyed in 2008 by a contractor, Progressive Fire Solutions, hired by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The  subsequent reports, posted on a King County website, offer blunt assessments.

Firefighters, for example, were forecast to have a less than 50% chance of successfully defending homes built near Lake Umek, southeast of Kanaskat.

The contractor cited the Wilderness Rim development outside of North Bend as high risk, citing the community of more than 600 homes as an example of unchecked growth. Many homes “have no defensible space” while others had only a minimal amount, according to a report that recommended the community join the Firewise USA program, which is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association to encourage neighbors to work together to prevent property loss from wildfires.

At Wilderness Rim, these findings helped to spur change.

The community association paid to develop a fire-protection plan that included evacuation routes.

There were educational meetings, one of which featured resident Doug Greathouse, a retired firefighter who demonstrated the burn potential by torching a bunch of debris gathered from his backyard.

Homeowners have worked to clear brush from their properties, including an effort last year that involved planning and other assistance from the King Conservation District, and the association hired a contractor to cut trees in greenbelts between the homes as well as in a 5-acre park.

Some homeowners have put on metal roofs, or taken other actions to make their houses more  fire-resistant, according to Greathouse.

“On the west side, people just don’t understand the danger,” Greathouse said. “The Firewise program helps to inform them that there is a problem.”