Northwest communities, including Sudden Valley, prepare for risk of wildfires

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 16, 2013 

fire danger

Michael Medler, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University in the Sehome Hill Arboretum Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. Medler says the risk of wildfires on the west side of the Northwest is increasing with rising temperatures.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Wildfires have been big news this summer, from the massive Rim Fire by Yosemite National Park to the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire north of Phoenix that killed 19 firefighters.

Western Washington has been spared major fires, but don't count on that lasting forever. While big fires are less frequent on the west side of the Cascades, burn scars on trees and ash layers in the ground document that they have flared in the past.

"Fire lives here," said Michael Medler, a fire geographer. "It's not alien."

Worse, the timetable for large fires is shortening because climate change is bringing higher temperatures, more drought and longer fire seasons, said Medler, an associate professor in the environmental studies department at Huxley College of the Environment.

"Climate change is the big monkey wrench in this," he said. "When you have anomalous weather, you have anomalous fires."

Worrying about fires in Western Washington isn't new. Eleven years ago, communities in Washington began enrolling in Firewise, a national program in which people take precautions to reduce their exposure to wildfires.

Of the 101 Firewise communities in Washington, all but two dozen are west of the Cascades. Whatcom County has two Firewise communities - Sudden Valley Community Association and Lummi Island Scenic Estates.

At Sudden Valley, Firewise activities include removing dead and fallen limbs and other potential fire fuel from common property, and encouraging homeowners to do the same on their own land.

Other efforts include educating homeowners, requiring contractors to follow fire-smart practices when they build homes in Sudden Valley, regulating recreational fires, and having maintenance workers remove woody debris on an ongoing basis.

"On different levels, we're always working toward Firewise goals," said Anthony Cavender, manger of community of environmental services for Sudden Valley Community Association.

Skagit County has seven Firewise communities, including Chuckanut Ridge, a cluster of 13 homes on 21 parcels on the slopes of Chuckanut Mountain just south of the Whatcom County line.

Residents there have cleared woody material and limbs along their access road to create a firebreak, and taken similar steps to protect their homes by lopping off low limbs on trees, removing flammable materials from near their houses and using metal roofs and other fire-resistant materials on their homes, said Roger Mitchell, a retired business executive who lives there.

"Everybody's got chain saws," he said. "Several of us have chippers."

The idea of reducing fire risk in the woods might seem daunting, but it's much more manageable when neighbors come together to learn what to do and to help each other.

"We did this as a community," Mitchell said. "That's the key."

MORE FIRES, BIGGER FIRES

Twenty-five years ago, Medler helped fight a monster fire at Yellowstone National Park that burned nearly 794,000 acres. That year, wildfires burned 5 million acres across the country, making it one of the worst seasons in several decades.

But the worst was yet to come. There have been a dozen more-damaging fire seasons since the Yellowstone fire, with the 2006 season leaving almost 9.9 million acres burned.

Medler said several factors have contributed to the increase. Climate change is one.

Another is the build-up of natural fuel for wildfires, due to poor forest management and to decades of a misguided policy to fight all wildfires rather than let many of them burn as nature intended. And while fire officials now have more flexibility, the backlog of fire fuel remains huge.

"You're not going to thin yourself out of the problem," Medler said.

Controlled burns can remove excess fire fuel more quickly than clearing brush by hand, but that approach has been hindered, in part, by the increase in people living in the backcountry, Medler said.

That increase also puts wildland firefighters at greater risk. They're trained to run if conditions turn against them, but that's harder to do if they're trying to save homes.

"We're not training these firefighters for these kind of scenarios," Medler said.

Suggested solutions vary, including national wildfire insurance, changes in forest management, and tighter land-use controls.

Jack Cohen, a researcher at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana, has written that megafires don't have to be disasters for homeowners if they take steps to keep a fire's heat and flying embers a safe distance away.

Medler said legislation may be needed, such as making it easier for neighboring jurisdictions to use controlled burns. He also endorses precautions by communities and homeowners, even if a big fire seems an unlikely prospect in our neck of the woods.

"By the time the big fire is coming to your house, you've already lost the game," he said.

COMING UP

John Marshall, a fire ecology photographer for the U.S. Forest Service, will discuss forest fire management in Eastern Washington, noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, in the lecture room at Bellingham Public Library, 210 Central Ave.

FIREWISE INFO

To learn about the Firewise Communities program, see firewise.org.

The state liaison for Firewise is Sarah Foster at the Washington Department of Natural Resources, 360-902-1704 or sarah.foster@dnr.wa.gov.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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