Wildfire season is here, and local fire officials say residents need to know how to protect their homes and be prepared in case of an emergency.
Some neighborhoods are at higher risk because they are what fire officials call the wildland-urban interface — areas where residences and traditionally forested areas overlap.
“When you have large groups of houses, a wildland fire can move from the forest into those areas, and there’s no way to protect them,” Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue Chief John Nohr said.
“A lot of people think, ‘Well, this doesn’t happen here’ or ‘I’ve never seen a fire come through my neighborhood’ so it will never happen. But the reality is, it could happen, and you will have to evacuate,” he added.
Clark County Fire Marshal Dan Young said a lack of water in those areas for firefighting increases that risk.
Houses on dead-end streets are also at higher risk because there is only one exit and entrance that could be blocked by fire, Nohr said.
Young said another factor to consider is residences’ proximity to the Yacolt Burn. The wildfire occurred in 1902 and burned over 500,000 acres of land. It’s been nearly 120 years since, and the aftermath of the fire is still felt.
The wildfire caused the landscape to completely change, Nohr said, and the area is now more susceptible to wildfires because it never fully recovered.
“If you live in downtown Vancouver or in the Heights, you probably won’t be facing these issues. But if you live in Hockinson or east of Camas or Washougal, north of Battle Ground near Yacolt, have a bag packed ready to go — that way in a moment’s notice you can evacuate,” Nohr said.
Heat waves, such as the one in late June, can scorch plants and produce fire that jumps from home to home, Nohr said.
According to Nohr, most houses built from the 1940s onward have a protective layer of sheetrock surrounding them. This helps keep fire from spreading into the wooden spaces of homes; however, attic spaces are built from bare lumber, which means a fire coming from the outside can easily spread in that space.
During the fall and winter, needles from trees fall onto the roofs of homes and can result in piles of needles that move into gutters. These can act as fuel for fires.
“It’s hard for us as firefighters to get there in a timely matter and shut them down,” Nohr said.
He said one of the most common tips for staying safe is people re-evaluating their property’s landscape. Using rocks or other fire-resistant ground covers, rather than bark dust, can help prevent the spread of wildfires.
“If a wildfire is passing through your area, having those protective measures is going to help control the fire so it doesn’t transmit to your house,” Nohr said.
Fire risk survey program
Clark County Fire District 3, which covers Battle Ground and Hockinson, has put together a fire risk survey program, an “ongoing outreach program to contact homeowners in this interface area, and with them conduct a fire risk survey of their home and property.”
As Clark County’s population increases, many residents are settling on the east side of the county.
This area, near the Yacolt Burn State Forest, is one of 12 in Washington “likely to experience a major wildfire with serious property damage and potential loss of life,” according to an overview of the program.
The area is surrounded by trees and experiences strong, dry winds that make it easy for a wildfire to spread quickly, according to Young.
The goal of the program is to contact at least 400 homeowners in the area over the summer to get a “comprehensive vision of problem areas in the event of a fire.”
Ten different categories are in the survey, including road access, topography, fuels, electrical utilities, building construction, water supply, structural fire protection, landscaping, outdoor burning and firewood storage. Once the survey is completed, homeowners receive a score that tells them the risk level associated with their home:
- Low Fire Danger: 0-15
- Moderate Fire Danger: 16-30
- Moderate High Fire Danger: 31-40
- High Fire Danger: 41-60
- Extreme Fire Danger: Over 60
In 2019, Fire District 3 visited 673 homes, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, residents can now request a free visit by appointment at www.fire3.org.