It's up to all of us to prevent deadly wildfires

It’s forest fire season in Washington state. Given the drippy spring we’ve endured in South Sound, that fact is hard to grasp. But the reality is that 17 forest fires have been reported this year on lands protected by state Department of Natural Resources.

It’s time for each of us pay attention and take responsibility for our actions in a collective effort to prevent forest fires, which consumed 76,076 acres in this state last year.

We often hear about fires ignited by lightning strikes. But truth be told, 85 percent of Washington’s forest fires are caused by humans. It’s the homeowner who lets a brush fire get away. It’s the leftover charcoal from the barbecue dumped in a bed of tinder-dry pine needles. It’s the unattended campfire that explodes into an adjacent forested area. All are human errors – errors that can be avoided by following a few simple rules.

“With fire season upon us, we want to remind people how quickly vegetation can dry out and then carry fire if ignited,” said Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark. “With help from everyone, the damage and expense of wildfires this year can be reduced significantly.”

Goldmark said, “This is the time of year when people should be assessing their property and taking steps to develop defensible space around their homes. The key is to take actions before there is actual risk from a wildfire.”

Great progress has been made in firefighting technology in this state and nation. But we should remember that there have been times in this country’s history when forest fires wiped out hundreds of innocent lives.

The nation’s worst forest fire was Oct. 8-14, 1871, when more than 1,200 people died and 4 million acres were burned in Peshtigo, Wis. A fire on Sept. 1, 1894, ravaged Minnesota, consuming more than 160,000 acres and 600 lives, including 413 residents of Hinckley.

The region’s most devastating fire was ignited on Aug. 20, 1910, on the Idaho-Montana border when hurricane-force winds drove the flames from the Canadian border to the Salmon River, cutting a swath 50 miles wide at points. The blaze consumed 3 million acres and killed 85 people. Called “The Big Blowup,” the fire resulted in significant changes to the way federal firefighters wage battles against fast-moving fires.

In this state, in September 1902 the Yacolt fire destroyed 1 million acres and left 38 dead.

Thank goodness firefighters have many more tools at their disposal today – everything from helicopters to improved radio communications. As a result, property damage can be kept in check and lost lives kept to a minimum.

Last year, 93 percent of wildfires on lands protected by DNR were contained at less than 10 acres in size. That’s a significant achievement.

Natural Resources operates the largest on-call fire department in the state with 1,200 permanent and temporary employees protecting more than 12 million acres of private and state-owned forest lands. Those firefighters put their lives at risk to protect state residents. Firefighters say if residents follow a few simple, common sense rules during fire season – April 15 to Oct. 15 – the firefighters can be successful.

They ask that homeowners who burn debris follow DNR rules and check for burn bans.

There are special summer rules for loggers, firewood cutters, land clearers, road builders, bulldozer operators, off-road motorcyclists, and others. Campers, hunters, hikers and others who venture into the woods need to follow rules on campfires and abide by the ban on fireworks. Homeowners need to create a barrier between their residence and forested lands.

Smokey Bear, the mascot of the United States Forest Service was created in 1944. Smokey’s message – “Only you can prevent forest fires” – was true then and it’s true today.