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May 31, 2020

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Wildfire risk to be high this summer

Firefighters warn folks to clear away vegetation

The Columbian
Published:

This spring’s extra rainfall means we don’t have to worry about wildfires this summer and fall, right?

Unfortunately, it’s the opposite, says Capt. Kevin Murray with the Vancouver Fire Department.

By causing more vegetation, such as grass and brush, to grow up this spring, the extra rainfall has worked against us.

Once the area heats up and dries out next month, and especially in September — and once the winds pick up — there will be more stuff than usual ready to burn, Murray said.

And having a thinly staffed fire department isn’t going to help matters.

As a result, firefighters are asking Vancouver residents to help them by helping themselves, according to a bulletin from Interim Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli and Public Education Coordinator Marilyn Westlake.

To do that, residents will have to get off the couch and get busy with those chain saws, pruning shears, mowers and rakes, ahead of wildfire season.

Some areas the Vancouver department protects have more wildfire danger than others.

Tuesday, Murray and some firefighters went door to door to warn folks who live around Southeast Evergreen Highway, along the Columbia River south of state Highway 14, where time and big fires have proved there’s special danger.

“We get some pretty good winds down there,” Murray said. “That’s a funnel point for the east wind.”

In other areas as well, terrain such as hillsides and cliffs can channel winds and flames and spread wildfires.

Thinking ahead, the fire department has identified more than 3,000 homes and businesses where terrain and nearby vegetation increase the vulnerability to wildfires.

Fire department employees mailed out 3,113 postcards Wednesday to alert those property owners.

Other areas with extra wildfire danger are along Fruit Valley Road, and large sections around northern Orchards, Sifton, Proebstel and Camp Bonneville, including within Fire District 5, which the Vancouver Fire Department protects.

The job at hand: “Think like a fire, clean up and plan ahead,” says a fire-department flier.

Here are specific recommendations from the department:

o Clear trees, brush and other combustible plants from a buffer zone around a building. In wooded areas, this defensible space should extend 30 feet around a building. Remove leaves, twigs and dead limbs, and remove tree limbs for the first six to 10 feet above ground. Dead branches should go if they hang over a roof.

o Get rid of what firefighters call ladder fuels, which can allow flames to rise and grow, such as from grass to bushes to tree limbs to a roof. Also on the hit list: tree branches and shrubs within 15 feet from a chimney or stovepipe. Clear away combustible vegetation that could lead a flame to a wood fence.

o Clean roofs and gutters regularly, inspect and clean chimneys annually, and don’t allow yard debris, building materials and junk to build up on your property.

o Fire-resistant or noncombustible materials can be used on roofs and the exteriors of homes, and some shrubs and trees are more fire-resistant than others. Firefighters have described large arborvitaes as “Roman candles” because of the dead limbs, leaves and other tinder-dry combustible materials inside them. Some tree removal may require city permits, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, so call 360-487-7800.

o Store firewood well away and uphill from a home, with a distance of 100 feet recommended. Keep gasoline, oily rags and similar combustibles in approved safety cans.

o Keep fire tools handy, including rakes, axes, saws, water buckets and shovels.

o For more information, visit http://www.vanfire.org.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.

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