Home insurance

Urban wildfires real, but you can lessen the odds

Tuesday, May 9, 2017by  Jon Osterberg

fire trucks hose down urban wildfire in RentonYou might think that if you live in a city or in the suburbs, you won't get burned by a wildfire.

Think again. Just ask the Renton residents who live in or near the 359-unit Regency Woods apartment complex, which burned three summers ago, displacing 39 residents.

July 2014 was hot and dry. Forty-five days that summer were 80 degrees or warmer, and conditions had been particularly dry around Renton since before July 4.

At 1:46 p.m. on July 19, a 911 call came in reporting an apartment fire. Firefighters arrived just 8 minutes later to find the blaze already raging, eventually triggering four alarms and drawing 140 firefighters from around the region. Parts of the complex burned down, causing $3 million in damage.

boy walks on charred ground after urban wildfire in RentonThat's not all. Gusty winds blew embers nearly 2 miles away, igniting dry grass and brush in neighborhoods. My colleague Marjorie knows because her home sits just a few blocks from a greenbelt that burned, and she snapped these top two photos as firefighters defended houses in her neighborhood.

As of January 2015, fire officials said the cause of the Regency Woods fire was "undetermined," but they're certain it started outside the apartments, likely in parched beauty bark, perhaps triggered by a cigarette or briquettes.

fire officials explain how to resist wildfireThat echoes what I heard this past Saturday from Captain Joe Seemiller of Kittitas Valley Fire & Rescue. Joe was one of several fire officials at Wildfire Community Preparedness Day (right) near Cle Elum, along with state legislators and Department of Natural Resources spokespersons.

"Urban fires are real in Ellensburg," said Seemiller. "Beauty bark can be a real fire hazard. Homeowners should also be careful with juniper and arborvitae, which I've seen go up in flames."

Seemiller said homeowners looking to cut their fire risk should read "Fire-Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes," a Pacific Northwest Extension publication. Fireworks also sparked fires in years past in Ellensburg until the city banned them, like in other communities across the Northwest. Home barbecues still torment urban firefighters, though.

Wildfire-Community-Preparedness-Day-2017b.jpgGary Berndt, a wildland fire liaison for the state DNR and a former Kittitas County commissioner, told the crowd (left) our wet spring will delay fire season but will nourish tall grass that becomes fire fuel later. He also explained recent legislative efforts to limit the red tape for local heavy-equipment contractors who want to help fight wildland fires.

Sen. Judy Warnick and Rep. Tom Dent, both from Moses Lake, stressed the importance of residents having their property ready to resist fire. Dent drew a chuckle by stating the obvious, that "everyone here likes to have a house." In a fire, "we lose fences, we lose houses, we lose people."

City-dwellers, it could happen to you. So don't get burned!

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