Western Washington is rarely associated with wildfires, but hotter, dryer summers have pushed the region to brace itself for the growing dangers of climate change.
On Tuesday, King County released its first-ever Wildfire Risk Reduction Strategy, a 12-point plan to bolster the region’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from large burns.
“We’re seeing the global impact of climate change with unprecedented fires,” King County Executive Dow Constantine told reporters Tuesday morning, standing at a podium under thinning shade at Mirrormont Park south of Issaquah as temperatures climbed toward 95 degrees.
With just over 4,000 residents, Mirrormont is located in unincorporated King County, one of the urban pockets that meet rural forest and farmland. This means it falls under the state’s wildland-urban interface, a designation for residents and buildings considered at greater risk of fire.
More than 350,000 people — or about 15% of King County residents — live under these potential risks.
The Wildfire Risk Reduction Strategy released Tuesday is part of the county’s Strategic Climate Action Plan, announced in 2020, which details a roadmap to better prepare the community for summers with less precipitation and more extreme temperatures.
The twelve recommended actions defined in the strategy call for, among other things, an increase in support for small forest landowners, the development of community preparedness, monitoring invasive species that increase fire risk and implantation of countywide training standards for emergency response.
Officials said lack of preparedness and population growth are major concerns.
Many neighborhoods have only one access road and most communities don’t have a wildfire response or evacuation plan, said Lara Whitely Binder, King County’s Climate Preparedness Program Manager.
Not only is infrastructure not ready, Binder said, but 85% of wildfires in Washington were caused by people.
The Puget Sound Regional Council projected in 2018 that the population of the central Puget Sound region will grow from 4 million to 5.8 million by 2050.
A growing population means more people will be at risk as heatwaves like the one Seattle entered Tuesday dry the land and produce fuel for potential fires in the future.
“The challenge we face is that, for those of us living in western Washington, our reference point for wildfire is defined by what we see happening in eastern Washington and California,” she said.
The Pacific Northwest has suffered expansive burns in recent years across central Washington, Oregon and California. But in King County and other regions west of the Cascades, it won’t take a massive fire to cause significant damage, Binder said.
“We just need to shift the reference point,” she said.