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This year’s wildfire season is closer than it appears By: Rose Beaton Community Resilience Coordinator, Washington State Department of Natural Resources



Last year, the Oregon and Gray Road fires near Spokane, Washington destroyed hundreds of residences and structures, uprooting families and communities and leaving them questioning whether to rebuild or move and engaging in ever-long conversations regarding insurance and property abatement. 


Closer to home, Kittitas County has been no stranger to wildfires. Smaller wildfires often shut down Interstate 90 because of roadside ignitions, and larger wildfires, like Jolly Mountain, Snag Canyon, South Cle Elum Ridge, Taylor Bridge, Table Mountain, Colockum Tarps, Vantage Highway, among others, have damaged property and infrastructure. However, Kittitas County has so far been lucky compared to other communities impacted by wildfires in the West (Paradise in 2018, Gray & Oregon Fires in August 2023). 


While it may be unseen, any first responder in Kittitas County knows the risk of wildfire and the countless close calls we have had. Recently, a firefighter sustained injuries from initial attack operations on a small fire, a constant reminder that it is not just large wildfire incidents that are dangerous—they all are equally dangerous and have the potential to injure firefighters and citizens alike. Wildfire knows no boundaries or training. It is opportunistic, causing damage to people who have spent their lives fighting fire and to people who are evacuating a wildfire for the first time. 


This “El Niño” winter has been warmer, and although we’ve had some mountain snow, it’s not close to average snowpack conditions in the Pacific Northwest.


Therefore, grasses will dry out quickly, becoming very receptive to wildfire. Fire season is around the corner, and every year it trends toward beginning earlier and lasting longer. It’s important to always be prepared for spring wildfires, because we know it’s not if they will happen, but when. 

Kittitas County wildland firefighters from local fire districts, state, and federal agencies are actively refreshing their wildland fire training and passing their physical fitness tests to obtain “red cards” for firefighters and “blue cards” for law enforcement personnel. Local fire district personnel are already carrying their wildland firefighting gear because the weather conditions are drier than normal for March. 

In the Kittitas Valley, there have already been multiple responses by the fire district to unintended fires spread by wind from folks burning ditches and fields. The signs are clear–as we transition from spring to warmer months, we are drying out faster and there is more available fuel indicating that this season has the potential for bigger, more severe fires. 


Not only did we have a drier than normal winter this year, but there have been long-term changes in our climate and fuel sources. Forests and shrub-steppe ecosystems have experienced 100 years of fire suppression policy that has kept wildfires off of the landscape, altering them so that they have more dense vegetation. This increases their receptiveness to higher severity wildfires. In addition, people have expanded into natural areas where we have not historically lived, increasing our risk. All of these factors are dominos when it comes to a wildfire–when the “right” conditions line up, our region becomes a news headline, like Spokane did recently.


The best defense is starting with our own living spaces, hardening them to reduce our personal wildfire risk. Homes are most typically lost and damaged during wildfire events due to ember cast. Little embers, like the ones that cast off a bonfire during camping trips, pose the biggest threat to homes. Creating a defensible home space is key to increasing the probability during a wildfire event that our homes will survive. 


Just like putting up and taking down Christmas decorations, defensible space and home hardening are repetitive tasks that should be part of being a home/property owner. This includes the annual removal of pine needles, leaf litter, and other vegetation that accumulates. 


Creating a Defensible Space—Your First Line of Defense: Defensible space is the buffer you create between your residence and the surrounding vegetation. This space is essential to protect your home from catching fire, whether it be from direct flame contact, radiant heat, or flying embers.


The Immediate 5 Feet Zone:  Arguably this area is the most critical defensible space from wildfire embers. This area should be an ember-resistant zone. Use noncombustible materials (construction and landscaping materials) like gravel or concrete and remove all dead and dying vegetation. Ensure that roofs, gutters, decks, and porches are clear of debris12


5- 30 Feet Zone: Within 30 feet of your home, maintain a lean, clean, and green area. This year may not-be-so-green, and if that is the case, keeping vegetation less than six inches tall will still be effective in limiting the potential flame height. Remove all dead plants, grass, and weeds. Keep trees and shrubs pruned and spaced out to prevent fire from climbing [aka “ladder fuels”] into the canopy.


Zone 2 - 100 Feet of Reduced Fuel: Beyond 30 feet, up to 100 feet from your home, reduce the amount of flammable vegetation. Create “fuel breaks,” such as driveways or gravel walkways, and ensure trees are spaced at least 10 feet apart.


There are resources to help! Washington State Department of Natural Resources offers free one-on-one home visits to help folks discuss their own wildfire risk in the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program. This is a voluntary program, and anyone can sign up at wildfireready.com and a wildfire professional will be in contact with you. After a visit by a wildfire professional, a report is provided detailing the actions (no cost, low cost, and higher cost) that can be done on your property to reduce your wildfire risk. 


Lastly, it is important to emphasize the dynamic nature of evacuations and the notices that are issued. Sometimes you may have no official notice and must evacuate without any prompting from first responders. If you are traveling anywhere in Washington this summer, wildfire is a risk. Knowing how you will be notified and how to evacuate if necessary are essential to your survival. There seems to be an expectation that evacuations will start with an initial notification, with time to prepare, and then a more urgent request will follow asking residents and visitors to evacuate. We are seeing, time and time again, this isn't the case. The likelihood that you will be asked to evacuate immediately during a wildfire event is more probable, so preparing this spring with an emergency go-kit is critical for timely evacuations. 


Sign up for emergency notifications through Kittitas County Emergency Management to be notified of emergencies in your area. 


Learn more about fire impacts in the shrub-steppe at Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe May 10-12, 2024. Details here: https://www.ycic.org/giss

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