East of the Cascades, wildfire is coming, prepared or not. Some homeowners see their own effort as the best chance for their homes to survive.
MAZAMA, Okanogan County — It’s nearly 90 degrees. It’s dry. The scent of pine, fir and dust hangs on a light breeze that will whip up to about 15 mph later in the afternoon, as it does most days.
As gravel crunches beneath her boots, Kirsten Cook walks around Dave Caldwell and Nancy Kuta’s cabin in Mazama, Okanogan County, where the retired couple has had a home for 17 years. Cook, of the Okanogan Conservation District, assesses the property like an army general would her battle lines.
The threat: wildfire — something Cook says “is a matter of when, not if” on the east side of the state.
Cook’s job is to diagnose wildfire risk to homes and then offer homeowners pragmatic solutions. Her free service is more in demand than ever in Okanogan County, where just last summer the Carlton complex fire burned more than 250,000 acres and destroyed more than 300 homes.
She’s working her way through a 75-appointment backlog.
Larger, more volatile fires are expected across the nation as more people are living in fire-prone wild lands.
The fast-moving Sleepy Hollow Fire would burn 29 homes in Wenatchee just days after Cook’s visit to Mazama. And right now about a dozen large fires are burning in the state.
Through the 1990s, the number of structures in fire-prone areas grew 30 percent, according to research led by the University of Wisconsin, a trend researchers say has continued.
State and federal budgets to fight fires are stretched beyond their means.
As the nation struggles to get its wildfire strategy under control, a shift is under way in parts of Washington. Many homeowners see preparing for wildfire as a responsibility less the government’s than their own.
A new perspective
Many of Cook’s clients are originally from the Seattle area, she said. Some have vacation homes. Others are retiring there.
For some, there’s a learning curve.
“There are people who have their landscape architect come over and make a great landscape — for Seattle,” Cook said. “You’re in a different ecosystem.”
Cook checks the height of the tree branches around Caldwell and Kuta’s home. Left too low, fire racing through the forest understory could set fire to branches and send the fire soaring into treetops, where it can spread rapidly and become more intense.
She spends about an hour working down her checklist from Firewise, a national program that teaches people to adapt to wildfire.
About 30 feet of space from forest to house: good. Without defensible space, firefighters might not feel safe trying to protect a house.
Metal roof: great. Embers can stick to wood shingles and burn.
Narrow, gravel driveway: could be better. Large fire trucks needs more space to turn around.
“We figure they’re not going to bother with us if there’s a fire,” Caldwell says of firefighters. Because the cabin is on a narrow lot, it could be tricky to defend.
“That’s a good attitude to have, actually,” says Cook. With that mindset, they’ll be as prepared as possible if — or when — fire pushes up the valley.
Neighbors create plan
About 35 miles southeast from Mazama, the remote Chiliwist area of Okanogan County embodies the ethic of wildfire resilience.
Neighbors there describe a community of fiercely independent, self-sufficient people, who also look out for each other. “You get stuck in the snow or something like that, they’re there,” said Bill Bruton, who retired as an engineer in 1998 and built a home in the area the next year.
In 1994, neighbors began to develop an organized plan for wildfire, or other emergency. Peggy and Noble Kelly, who had left their Kirkland home and retired to the Chiliwist a year earlier, created an emergency-calling plan for all the neighbors. Noble, once a compass man who used to set boundaries for the Cascade Lumber Company, drew up a color-coded map for neighbors living on a network of dirt and gravel roads.
Noble, 84, uses a 1989 Dodge pickup truck loaded with a 200-gallon water tank, chain saw, pump and other tools as a “poor man’s fire truck.”
“They’re the boss when they get there,” he said of agencies responsible for firefighting. “Until then, I’m the boss.”
Bruton and his wife, Marlene, live on a hill and serve as the community’s fire watch. When lightning strikes, Bill Bruton looks for smoke and tries to triangulate hot spots with his compass and neighbors’ reports.
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With both couples leading about 40 property owners, the Chiliwist area in 2013 was the first in Okanogan County to become a Firewise community, which means it had sought out training and advice about how to be prepared for fire.
Both the Kellys and Brutons have outfitted their homes to Firewise specifications.
For example: “Kelly’s Outpost” features a composite deck less likely to burn. Twice the couple had their 80 acres logged and thinned. Wire mesh covers any open areas where debris like pine needles could settle. They have a metal roof.
The couple has meticulously groomed the trees around the house to 12 feet, so their branches couldn’t be licked by a fire on the ground.
“Well, if you want to keep it, you’ve got to take care of it,” Noble Kelly said.
Money for prevention
According to the DNR, 59 of 67 structures on properties where hazard-reduction work had been done before the Carlton complex fire were able to be saved.
Washington state is promoting the prevention ethic in communities like the Chiliwist by prioritizing them for grants. It’s also putting more funding into its forest-health programs, which can help because many large fires start on state or federal land.
“We’re trying to make a cultural change,” said state forester Aaron Everett. “We want to make better, more sustainable choices for our forest and help people understand it’s an eventuality, there is going to be fire. And how prepared will you be?”
The Department of Natural Resources asked for about $10 million a year for forest health programs, including Firewise, in 2015 and 2016. Everett said the state Legislature in its budget gave only $5 million, but it still was “the largest-ever single appropriation for forest-hazard reduction.”
“This level of funding is a significant victory for protecting sick and dying fire-prone forests,” said Everett. But still less than needed to protect people and their homes.
The DNR believes preventive measures can help save homes. According to the agency, 59 of 67 structures on properties where hazard-reduction work had been done before the Carlton complex fire were able to be saved.
The Chiliwist area last year received some forest-health funds for 2014 after the DNR prioritized Chiliwist for two federal grants, said Steve Harris, a landowner assistance manager with the agency.
The grants of about $450,000 were for the treatment of state and private forest in the Chiliwist area.
How homes survived
Unfortunately, for the community that had done so much to prevent and prepare for wildfire, the funds weren’t put to use in time.
Weeks before the grants could be used to clear heavy fuels in the Chiliwist area, the Carlton complex fire took off and thinned the forest on its own.
Nearly a year later, the Brutons’ dog still wanders home covered in ash from burned bitterbrush. When it rains, an acrid smell overtakes the valley — “like a stirred campfire,” the couple said.
When the Carlton complex roared through the Chiliwist area — it moved with alarming speed.
Bill Bruton remembers steering his family’s RV down winding dirt roads through a fog of smoke, passing burning animal pens.
“All I could see is the taillights in front of me,” said Bruton, who grew up in West Seattle.
In two days, the Carlton complex fire spread so rapidly they had to evacuate from three different locations before deciding to drive to Redmond, where Marlene Bruton’s son lived.
When they returned days later, “it was like coming into a moonscape,” she said.
“My outbuilding was metal. It was all crinkled up in a pile,” said Bill. His aluminum boat? A “puddle.”
Although firefighters didn’t make it to their property, the Brutons’ house was spared. The fire burned right up to the manicured lawn that surrounds it. Everything inside and out was coated in a thin layer of ash, but otherwise untouched.
“There wasn’t a singe. Nothing,” said Marlene. “It looked like somebody had cut a circle out around the house.”
Was it their preparations that saved them?
“Not this time. This type of fire was just pick and choose,” said Bill. “A forest fire is survivable. It’s something predictable. Nothing in Firewise can protect you from a fire storm.”
Their neighbors, the Kellys, said their “outpost” was able to be saved by firefighters because they had taken preventive measures. Weeks later, firefighters told them “if we had not done Firewise work, they couldn’t have stayed to defend this place,” said Peggy.
With trees trimmed, fire stayed out of the tree tops. When power went out in the valley, their backup generator was able to pump well water for fire trucks. They had enough space for several crews of firefighters.
“We had suppression crews in here and that made all the difference,” said Noble.
The fire came within 50 feet of their home.
“It doesn’t look like anything happened, but it was all around,” said Peggy.
The Kellys said they’re blessed to have been spared.
“It burned houses you would not have thought would have burned and it left some you would not have thought it would leave,” said Peggy. “Firewise is not going to save everybody all the time.”
With preparation, there’s a chance, at least.