The smoke pall from Canadian wildfires last week was an early reminder that wildfire season is not too far away.
Given our history with wildfires over the past decade, it’s time to clean up yards, roofs and gutters to prepare for them. Appropriately, May is Wildfire Awareness Month.
Fires can and will occur anywhere in the region, so no part of our communities is safe from them. “Most fires are started not by direct contact with the fire but by embers blown ahead of a fire,” Jason Cirksena of the Washington Department of Natural Resources said. “Embers can travel as much as a mile ahead of a fire and ignite smaller fires.”
That means even urban neighborhoods near forested areas are vulnerable to wildfire.
Cirksena, the community resilience coordinator for the DNR, manages a new program in Spokane County called Wildfire Ready Neighbors. The DNR is collaborating with community partners to provide home assessments of your wildfire risk and mitigation strategies to help reduce the risk. The program is free and focuses on homes located in forested or open sage and grass areas at the edge of communities.
Often referred to as the wildland urban interface, or WUI, this is where much of our urban growth is taking place as people seek out their “place in the woods.”
While evaluating one house is good, Cirksena encourages neighbors to team up for assessments that can help everyone prepare for the inevitable fire. Neighborhoods that band together can be certified as a Firewise USA Community and provided with other wildfire planning tools.
Beyond connecting with Wildfire Ready Neighbors program, Cirksena has some suggestions that a homeowner can easily do to prepare for wildfire season.
First, remove anything flammable within 3 to 5 feet of your house, including around and under decks. This might mean removing bark and organic mulch from beds and replacing them with nonflammable hardscape, gravel or low-growing ground covers. Remove flammable plants like conifers, junipers, twiggy shrubs and trees and perennials like lavender and ornamental grasses that can catch fire easily. Keep the area well irrigated and clean up fallen needles and leaves regularly.
The DNR has a good publication, “Fire Resistant Plants for Eastern Washington,” which can help with alternative plant selection.
Beyond beds close to the house, be sure to remove pine needles and leaves from gutters and roof valleys on which an ember could land. Clean up fire-prone debris, including wood piles, and move them away from the house. During the 1991 firestorm, a news crew saved a house by removing a broom left leaning against a wall that had caught fire.
Beyond the 5 feet from the house, thin out twiggy shrubs and dense groups of trees so their branches aren’t touching. Limb up large trees at least 10 feet so fire can’t climb into the branches or spread from tree to tree. Keep lawns watered and mowed as another excellent fire break.