The Skagit County Board of Commissioners proclaimed May “Wildfire Awareness Month” after hearing from area wildfire experts.
“It’s a great time to start thinking about this before summer, when our months get warmer and our fire potential goes up,” local wildfire resilience coordinator Jenny Coe, who works for the Skagit and Whatcom conservation districts, told the commissioners Tuesday.
Coe was joined by other Skagit Conservation District staff and representatives of the Skagit County Fire Marshal’s Office and the state Department of Natural Resources’ northwest region firefighting team.
“In 2020, we had 65 classified fires in our region … and the average size was at 2.95 acres,” Natural Resources Fire Operations District Manager David Way said. “That’s not the great big huge fires we see in drier ecosystems like in Eastern Washington, but it is concerning knowing we have so many houses in these forested, rural areas of Skagit County.”
Natural Resources helps to protect all nonfederal lands from wildfire. The agency’s northwest region includes Skagit, Whatcom, Snohomish, Island and San Juan counties.
“We overlap with the municipal fire departments and rural fire districts for protection responsibilities … These partnerships are so important because fires don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries,” Way said.
In recent years, Natural Resources and partner agencies have seen fire season lengthen and the size of fires grow.
Research about the changes and growing risks of wildfire in Washington has pinpointed several contributing factors, Coe said.
“We’re getting increasing temperatures, we’re getting less rain in the summer, and our snow is melting earlier,” she said. “Our conditions are riper for wildfire; that’s what the science is showing.”
Deputy Skagit County Fire Marshal Mark Anderson pointed to the 2015 Goodell Fire that burned around Diablo and Newhalem in the North Cascades as an example of the risks. Residents were evacuated, and the fire torched the landscape “along both sides of Highway 20 — the only way out,” Anderson said.
No injuries were reported and no homes were lost, but the incident highlighted the higher risks where homes abut forestland, even in the wetter part of the state.
“As developments continue to move further and further into wooded areas, we increase the risk of life and losses to catastrophic wildfires,” Anderson said.
Residents and communities can help protect their homes by keeping a hose hooked to an on-site water source, planning routes for emergency exit and making sure firefighters can access the area as needed.
Maintaining a “home ignition zone” free of potential wildfire fuel is important, along with routinely cleaning leaves and debris from roofs and gutters, Coe said.
The Skagit Conservation District offers residents free wildfire risk assessments and partners with communities to develop plans with the national Firewise program through which communities complete a wildfire assessment and action planning process, and commit to continuing wildfire preparedness activities annually. Six Skagit County communities have received Firewise certification, Coe said.