Many Eastern Washington residents fear that weekenders aren’t ready for wildfire



SEATTLE – In time for wildfire season, new research from PEMCO Insurance shows that many long-time, year-round residents in Eastern Washington communities have confidence in their wildfire prevention efforts. But they question whether their weekend or seasonal neighbors recognize the danger and take the necessary steps to protect their homes – and the community – from wildfire.
The independent research, commissioned by PEMCO, Washington’s largest locally based insurer, was conducted in three Eastern Washington communities – the rural areas surrounding Cle Elum, Leavenworth and Chelan – among focus-group participants who live there, to help promote wildfire safety in the state’s at-risk communities. 
According to PEMCO’s research, a majority of the participants, many of whom have lived in their communities for more than 20 years, share serious concern about the threat of wildfire. Many of these long-time residents also think they’ve done an outstanding job following the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) recommended guidelines – known as Firewise principles – for preparing their homes and landscaping to resist wildfire.
However, many believe that far fewer of their neighbors are as safe. About half of the rural residents surveyed think that just some of their neighbors do an outstanding job taking an active role in protecting their homes and neighborhoods before a fire starts.
“Our discussions with these residents revealed a common concern: neighbors from out of town who use their property only seasonally or on weekends, and who aren’t as aware of the fire danger and don’t safeguard their property,” said PEMCO spokesperson Jon Osterberg. 
Residents are right to be concerned. According to NFPA, more than 10,000 homes have been lost to wildfires since 1970 across the United States, and the threat is just as real locally. A 1991 firestorm in Spokane destroyed 114 homes, and more recently Cle Elum’s Taylor Bridge fire in 2012 claimed more than 60 homes and many additional structures.
Disasters like those are why NFPA created the Firewise Communities Program in 1986, which empowers residents to take simple, effective steps around their homes and properties to make them more fire resistant.
“We are all responsible for taking the required steps protect our community from the risk of wildland fire,” said Suzanne Wade, geographic information systems (GIS) specialist for the Kittitas County Conservation District. “That’s why we meet with landowners to provide education and free home-risk assessments in addition to incorporating Firewise planning into existing and developing home sites and communities.”
According to Wade, a Firewise home is one that employs the principles of “lean, clean and green” landscaping.  A watered and maintained lawn is an effective buffer next to the home and keeping the first 30 feet around a home well-irrigated follows the “green” principle. In areas where irrigation is limited, homeowners should focus on the lean and clean principles. Use landscaping materials such as rock and well-spaced fire resistant plants, making sure the perimeter is clear of potential flammables including tall grass, overgrown brush, and beauty bark. Homeowners should also prune trees to keep low-hanging branches from becoming a “ladder fuel,” allowing a fire to travel up the tree into the crown. For trees that are at least 30 feet tall, limbs should be removed up to 15 feet from the ground.
“Addresses should be clearly marked and driveways must be able to accommodate fire trucks, which are difficult to maneuver in tight locations,” Kittitas County Fire District #7 Fire Chief Russ Hobbs added. “Ideally, properties should have two routes for exiting as access and egress can be impossible on single-track driveways – firefighters can't gain access, and homeowners can't escape the fire.”
PEMCO’s research shows that most of the rural residents polled agreed that the most critical aspect to a Firewise home is clearing a well-kept perimeter – and they’re right, according to Chief Hobbs. But still, almost one-quarter admit that they haven’t maintained this zone outside of their homes. What’s worse, about half think that only some of their neighbors keep the perimeter clear and well-watered.
“Our estimates show that Kittitas County is one of the best prepared counties in the state with about 25 to 30 percent of the population in our area complying with Firewise guidelines,” Chief Hobbs said. “But that means that even a best-prepared county still has as much as 75 percent of its at-risk population exposed – unnecessarily – to greater danger from a wildfire.”
Among those who said they don’t Firewise, their reasons gleaned from PEMCO’s research include timing and aesthetics. Some residents object to disrupting their home’s landscaping plan, and some enjoy the privacy and shade provided by overhanging tree limbs. In fact, nearly half of year-round residents said they haven’t removed branches lower than 15 feet from the ground. Others noted that their Firewise efforts don’t start until later in the year when the threat is greater.
“What’s most important is to take the necessary steps to prepare your property for wildfire season in May – National Wildfire Preparedness Month – before vegetation dries out and the threat of wildfire increases as summer begins,” Chief Hobbs said.
Community-wide preparation is especially important in Eastern Washington where dry, windy conditions, and sloping terrain crowded with pines provide the perfect fuel for wildland fires.
Despite the region’s vast uninhabited areas, Steve Fraidenburg, a statewide fire prevention specialist with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, notes statistics showing that humans were to blame for igniting about 70 percent of Eastern Washington fires on state-protected lands in 2013, which is consistent with long-term trends.
That comes as a surprise to about half of PEMCO’s research respondents who strongly believe lightening causes most wildfires. While lightning does account for some, human-caused fires represent the lion’s share, according to Fraidenburg.
As summer months near and weekend vacationers descend even more frequently on the region, the threat rises exponentially. Especially around destinations like Chelan – nicknamed by many of its year-round residents as the “Fort Lauderdale of Washington” for the visiting partiers it attracts, and whose carelessness concerns the locals.  
“PEMCO thinks the key message here involves awareness and action. Part-time residents must recognize wildfire danger. And year-round residents, although you likely know how to protect your home and property, you must act. Firewise is really pretty simple. You just need to do it,” Osterberg said.
For more information and resources about the Firewise Communities Program, and a look into how wildfire has affected local residents, visit
About the research
PEMCO Insurance commissions independent research as part of its consumer education efforts to keep Northwest residents safer at home and on the road. The qualitative research cited for this news release asked self-selected Eastern Washington residents questions about wildfire safety. Eighty homeowners with properties at risk for wildfire living near Cle Elum, Chelan, and Leavenworth, Washington, participated in the study conducted by FBK Research in April 2014.
About PEMCO Insurance
PEMCO Insurance, established in 1949, is a Seattle-based provider of auto, home, boat, and umbrella insurance to Northwest residents. PEMCO Insurance is sold to consumers by the method they choose – phone, local community agents, or online. PEMCO ranks “Highest in Customer Satisfaction among Auto Insurers in the Northwest Region” according to J.D. Power. For more information, visit