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News / Clark County News

What’s your wildfire-risk score? Fire District 3 can tell you

Surveys of homes, property provide an assessment, tips for creating ‘defensible’ space

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian environment and transportation reporter
Published: August 17, 2018, 10:14pm
4 Photos
Fire Marshal Chris Drone, left, and Risk Specialist Jacob Guisinger lead a wildfire survey at a rural home on Thursday afternoon.
Fire Marshal Chris Drone, left, and Risk Specialist Jacob Guisinger lead a wildfire survey at a rural home on Thursday afternoon. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

BATTLE GROUND — Some of the most effective firefighting happens well before the flaming front is bearing down on a house, which is why Clark County Fire District 3 staff are going door to door in parts of the district to help residents assess and deal with wildfire risk factors around their homes.

District Fire Marshal Chris Drone and Jacob Guisinger, a district fire risk specialist, surveyed homes in the Battle Ground Lake area Thursday as part of the district’s efforts this summer to help firefighters and residents plan ahead for any fires.

“There’s kind of two sides of it,” Drone said in the backyard of a rental house. “We’re protecting the homeowner from a potential forest fire, and we’re protecting the forest from a potential fire here.”

Fire District 3 is headquartered in Hockinson and also serves Brush Prairie and the city of Battle Ground. Much of the eastern half of the 88-square-mile district lies in wooded foothills, with many homes tucked away amid stream drainages and thick forests, and often with poor road access.

Tips to keep your home more wildfire-resistant

Keep driveway clear of overhanging branches and encroaching underbrush.

Keep grass cut and watered.

Prune low limbs and remove small, unproductive trees.

Keep “ladder fuels” such as dry brush, or anything fire can climb into larger vegetation, under control.

Thin trees in densely forested areas. For adequate crown spacing, limb trees to 20 feet above the ground.

Take proper care of slash or unburned piles. Be sure to follow burning regulations.

Create a fire safety zone around your home. A 30-foot or greater space between home and dense forest is recommended.

Keep utility lines clear of overhanging branches.

Keep roofs clear of tree needles, leaves, overhanging branches and limbs.

Make sure your road is properly marked with a street sign so firefighters can find it quickly.

Ensure home addresses are properly displayed and easily spotted.

Know where you closest water sources are.

Have enough hose on hand to reach every part of your yard.

Store firewood away from existing structures, and at least 20 feet from your home.

Sit down with your family and create an evacuation plan.

Because the air is choked with smoke from distant wildfires, and there have been multiple streaks of days with 90-degree temperatures, everyone they’ve spoken to has been generally more aware of wildfires, Drone said.

“It’s fresh in people’s minds, and we’re helping them to make decisions that could help protect their home.”

The district hopes to visit 400 homes to conduct the free surveys, and Drone said they’ve done about half that so far.

During a survey, district staff walk around each property and check for such things as spacing between buildings on a lot, firewood pile placement, how close vegetation is planted near a home, and whether the eaves are covered. They’ll issue a “score” for the home, then advise the residents about any potential risks and things they can do to reduce it. It’s all free, and the recommendations aren’t mandatory.

Most of the homes they’ve inspected show moderate to high fire risk, Guisinger said.

He said the surveys started in the steeper and more forested parts of the district, and have since moved into flatter areas, where homes typically have relatively fewer risk factors.

“Around here, it’s not that big of a problem,” he said as he inspected the home near Battle Ground Lake. “But once we get up into the hills where it’s a private road, it’s gravel, you know — we don’t have the best access, and the only way out is the same way they came in.”

That’s especially challenging if the road goes up an incline, because fire likes to move uphill.

Any area where homes and wild land mix means greater hazard for new fires, and makes for more complex and dangerous firefighting. Fire managers call those regions the wildland-urban interface.

Clark County’s own definition of the interface — which includes criteria for slope, vegetation and elevation — placed 5,400 homes in the higher-fire-risk area in 2016.

On the ground

The first house they visited Thursday had few issues, save for a dead tree with low branches that could ignite, then send fire up the tree.

Beyond that, it was very defendable, Guisinger said. Among its greatest strength was 30 feet of clear, well-trimmed lawn around the home.

For some homes, there isn’t much homeowners can do to reduce the risk, he said, but it’s helpful to know where a problem might arise.

“We’re being realistic. I’m not going to go ahead and ask her to move her shed.”

As part of the surveys, staff are also updating the district’s own information, Drone said.

“We look at different things — road access, presence of bridges, hydrants, things that are going to help us,” he said. “Then, Phase 2 we look at things that the homeowner can actually do to create a defensible space to protect their home and their family.”

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The district responds to plenty of grass and brush fires, Guisinger said, but so far they’ve tended to be close enough to fire stations that they’re knocked down before they grow into a running wildfire.

However, he said, it’s still possible for Clark County to see large fire activity.

“There’s definitely potential. There’s a lot of potential.”

Part of the district stretches toward the footprint of the Yacolt Burn, a series of 1902 fires that killed 38 people in the Lewis River area, burned about 350 square miles and, until 2015, was the largest fire in the state’s recorded history.

According to the Clark and Skamania county assessors’ offices, more than 800 homes sat in the old burn area as of 2016.

District residents can contact Fire District 3 to set up a survey by calling 360-892-2331.

Inspections Offered

Fire District 3 residents can contact district staff to arrange free, optional wildfire-risk consultations at their homes by calling 360-892-2331.

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Columbian environment and transportation reporter