As smoke billowed above the bluff, Keethler was reminded of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire that destroyed roughly 50,000 acres across the river in Oregon. Or, according to her, what could have been.
Climatologists say wildfire seasons are only going to intensify as summers become longer, drier and more erratic. For rural leaders and fire responders, the need to act and adapt is now, but challenges unique to these areas are thwarting progress.
Proactive measures, challenges
For rural communities, local fire response depends on volunteers. About two-thirds of the nation’s firefighters are volunteers, but these numbers are declining as they age with no one to replace them, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Bill Hunsaker, White Salmon’s fire chief, said his department could use at least 10 additional volunteers as calls for service grow, especially as more people move into what fire planners call the wildland-urban interface.
“(Residents’) exposure to fire goes up, but not everyone may be familiar with what to do,” he said.
The city of White Salmon and Klickitat County Fire District 3 proposed forming a regional fire authority to compensate for resource deficits. Merging would establish a consistent budget necessary for training, equipment and community outreach, Hunsaker said. But it requires a tax, and city officials aren’t confident that voters will look at it favorably when it appears on their November ballot.
That isn’t their only solution to prepare for intensifying wildfire seasons. White Salmon has a wildfire mitigation plan, though limited money to execute its actions.
“You can have these things adopted and approved, but who are the people that are really moving forward and making sure that happens?” Keethler said. “We’re in need of support from the community to move projects forward.”
The Washington Department of Natural Resources worked with White Salmon to create a 100- to 200-foot buffer bordering the city by trimming dense forest and removing low-growing vegetation to prevent embers from spreading a fire onto nearby structures.
The project encompasses 70 acres, but it requires 45 private landowners to participate. Alison Martin, DNR service forestry coordinator, said gaining this engagement from property owners is difficult. Some like their trees and brush, while others don’t want to maintain the trimmed area.
More in This Series
As DNR works with private landowners, White Salmon redirected fire mitigation projects by creating a break on the south side of the city where most of the land belongs to government agencies. But Keethler doesn’t think it will be as helpful as a large-scale fire break.
Community involvement on a grand scale is crucial for meaningful results, she said, and it begins with developing a different outlook on how to live with fire.
Necessary cultural shift
Dan Richardson, Underwood Conservation District’s Firewise coordinator, likens wildfires to physical ailments.
Specifically, Richardson describes how fire was once viewed as acute, such as a broken bone, versus chronic, like a stress fracture. Fires occasionally razed a home in the woods, but now these events can potentially wipe out a small town every fire season.
“Wildfire is something that individual residents need to take action to adapt to, as opposed to just waiting for a fire district or helicopter with a bucket full of water to come and rescue them,” the lifelong Gorge resident said.
As they waited, he anxiously peered at the cliff top through dark plumes. Relief quickly replaced Mullett’s fear when he saw the silhouette of their home. It was still standing, the result of a lesson learned from the Columbia River Gorge’s fire history, he said.
In 2007, the Broughton Fire devastated the exact same area where Mullett’s home stands, then burning five houses. Incorporating Firewise principles was a “no-brainer” when his family decided to establish a home in the area.
Yet Mullett’s home is just one property.
For similar efforts to have a noticeable impact, he believes entire neighborhoods need to abide by the same principles. However, regulations included in the National Scenic Area Management Plan muddy this idyllic vision, as Gorge residents must maintain a certain degree of trees and vegetation.
But the fire will not relent.
“It’s going to happen again. It’s inevitable,” Mullett said, glancing outside at the scorched vegetation where the cliff dips. “It does take a village.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.