Everyone must step up to protect against fires

August 1, 2013 

Quick action by several South Sound fire departments prevented a fire that destroyed a barn and two acres of brush in the Grand Mound area from becoming the state’s latest out-of-control wildfire. It was a reminder how easily a fire can start and cause tragic, often deadly, consequences.

The relatively small fire on the state’s Scatter Creek Game Release site also provides a valuable lesson for local governments and homeowners to seek improvements to the way we deal with wildfires, focusing on preparation and damage mitigation. And it can’t happen too soon.

Already major wildfires are burning in central Washington, destroying homes and threatening others, forcing families to evacuate, and resulting in the loss of jobs and property. And the driest, most dangerous fire season for the Northwest still lies ahead.

Shifting weather patterns are producing more fire-ready conditions across much of the United States, including the Northwest. At the same time, population growth is pushing development closer to forested land, which wildfire experts call the wildland-urban interface.

Those building and buying homes in heavily wooded areas can no longer expect publicly funded firefighting services to save their property. Government budgets have diminished. The U.S. Forest Service is hiring 500 fewer firefighters this year because of the automatic spending cuts imposed by Congress, known as sequestration.

Improved protection from forest fires will require greater cooperation from a wide range of stakeholders that includes individual property owners.

Many communities around the state have developed Community Wildfire Protection Plans. The purpose of CWPP is to minimize the losses from a wildfire by careful planning and collaboration among public agencies and communities.

No communities in Thurston, Lewis or Grays Harbor counties have a CWPP registered with the state Department of Natural Resources. Mason County has an overall plan, and a separate CWPP for the Lake Cushman area.

A key component of any CWPP is advance planning for fires and creating conditions to make them less likely and damaging. The CWPP should also instruct homeowners living in the wildland-urban interface how to create defensible space around their buildings with fire resistant landscaping plans.

The DNR offers homeowners a free video and brochure about the importance of fire-safe landscaping that includes a list of fire-resistant plants. The agency also provides financial assistance for tree thinning, which improves forest health while reducing the fire hazard.

We don’t suggest governments should enforce the defensible space concept by requiring the clearing of trees and other combustible fuels, but a homeowner’s failure to do so increases the cost to all taxpayers when fires occur.

Last year, the state spent nearly $70 million fighting forest fires. Nationally, eight of the nine worst fire seasons have occurred since 2000. The size and duration of wildland fires have been growing rapidly, increasing the cost to taxpayers year after year.

It’s not enough to be careful in the woods with campfires and cigarettes. People living in the wildland-urban interface must take responsibility for limiting the amount of flammable vegetation and materials surrounding their homes.

Communities living within and around the wildland-urban interface in Thurston, Lewis and Grays Harbor should formalize the development of working CWPPs. These actions make sense and allow us to better deal with the new reality.

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