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Here’s why Northwest wildfires are worsening

Thursday, April 19, 2018by  Jon Osterberg

The Jolly Mountain fire in 2017 threatened rural homes in Kittitas CountyI recently wrote about Firewising in April, citing severe local blazes in recent years. But I neglected to note, until now, why wildfires seem to be worsening.

The April 12 Northern Kittitas County Tribune ran an excellent summary of the Northwest's growing wildfire danger, as written by Rose Shriner, an expert who manages wildfire preparedness for Kittitas County. It echoes what PEMCO has learned in its own research and what we're told by Wildfire Defense Systems Inc. of Red Lodge, Mont.

Our communities are expanding into areas that in years past were wildlands. Think of how suburban sprawl has stretched into the Cascade foothills east of Seattle, in Chelan and Kittitas counties, or west of Bend. People are seeking solitude in the steppe and sagebrush in central Washington and Oregon.

As more homes emerge in rural locales, they strain the limits of first responders and scant local resources. Our dream of escaping to scenic tranquility doesn't neatly align with the innate reality: Living in nature can be marvelous until you badly need a fire truck and a city fire hydrant.

Shriner notes that wildfire has long been nature's way of sweeping out forest floors, keeping them and rangelands healthy. "Not managing wooded property is not an option … if our home and our neighbors' homes are to survive," she wrote.

"Thinning trees and shrubbery helps reduce the intensity of wildfires. Best available science has shown that having defensible space increases the likelihood of a home surviving a wildfire," Shriner added.

I could spark a debate by addressing how climate change has worsened Northwest wildfire risk. But no need to go there – an authority on fires, the U.S. Forest Service, points to another key factor in our challenge. For decades, it was believed that suppressing fire as soon as it's detected is the best way to protect people and property. As explained on its website, the Forest Service has since altered its approach:

"When we see fire, our first response is to put it out. For decades, the Forest Service has done just that when it came to wildland fires. But science has changed the way we think about wildland fire and the way we manage it. We still suppress fires, especially if they threaten people and communities, but we understand that fire has a role in nature – one that can lead to healthy ecosystems. So we look for ways to manage it to play its role, for instance, by igniting prescribed fires."

Removing branches up to 15 feet from the ground removes "ladder fuel" that can fuel a wildfireYes, we're challenged today with a heightened risk of wildfire. That brings us back to what we can do to make a difference, you and me. Individually.

What we do – or don't do – to prevent wildfire on our own property impacts our neighbor, and our neighbor's neighbor. Even if they worked hard to rid their property of fire fuel, they're still at risk if our own untidy yard kindles a chain-reaction blaze that floats embers their way.

Each of us can Firewise what's ours. So let's do it. Don't get burned!

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