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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Dec. 7, 2023

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Fighting fire with Firewise: Columbia River Gorge towns push for more wildfire safety practices

“You can see how close the fire came and how it could have been so much worse”

By , Columbian staff writer
9 Photos
Underwood Conservation District Firewise coordinator Dan Richardson looks over the Columbia River near where the Tunnel Five Fire in July crept up the hillside above Underwood.
Underwood Conservation District Firewise coordinator Dan Richardson looks over the Columbia River near where the Tunnel Five Fire in July crept up the hillside above Underwood. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

UNDERWOOD — For Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area residents, each hot and dry season their community isn’t touched by fire seems lucky.

But this good fortune seems to be straining. In early July, the Tunnel Five Fire that scorched 529 acres and destroyed multiple homes in Underwood was a wake-up call for area residents.

“You can see how close the fire came and how it could have been so much worse,” White Salmon Mayor Marla Keethler said. “But the wind was in our favor that day.”

The fire flamed for days in Underwood, roughly 2 miles west of White Salmon. Forty fire engines, hundreds of firefighters, aerial suppression units and water tenders fought the flames as they weaved along the Underwood bluff.

Compressed air rushes through the Columbia River Gorge’s narrow pass, creating a wind tunnel effect that can blow up to 50 mph during fire season, according to the U.S. Forest Service. This east wind coupled with dry conditions and ample fuel is the perfect recipe for a severe burn.

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

A charred stump sits atop the hillside on Mike Mullett's property above the site of the Tunnel Five Fire in Underwood. When designing his home, Mullett incorporated fire safety principles into its fabric, something he is convinced spared it from burning.Fighting fire with Firewise: Columbia River Gorge towns push for more wildfire safety practices
For Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area residents, each hot and dry season their community isn’t touched by fire seems lucky.
Battalion Chief Jason Leavitt, left, and Division Chief Ben Peeler take a moment to check in at the Jenny Creek Fire near La Center on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 17, 2023.Jenny Creek Fire near La Center a lesson for Clark County; fast moving blazes a danger
Columbia River Gorge communities aren’t the only ones coming to terms with increasing fire danger in the wildland-urban interface.
Wildfire mitigation begins at home; how to get prepared
Wildfire mitigation doesn’t begin when suppression crews battle flames racing through a community.

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.

Regional fires in past 5 years

In the Gorge and Southwest Washington:

Eagle Creek Fire (2017): Burned roughly 50,000 acres.

Big Hollow Fire (2020): 24,995 acres.

Kalama Fire (2022): 365 acres.

 Siouxon and Sunset fires (2022): 2,359 and 277 acres.

Goat Rocks Fire (2022): 6,196 acres.

Nakia Creek Fire (2022): 1,918 acres.

Tunnel Five Fire (2023): 529 acres.

SOURCE: www.inciweb.nwcg.org

Brush cleanup, community chipping and other smaller projects will not cause radical change. Instead, Richardson said, it’s better to change the culture surrounding creating a defensible space around one’s home. Or, in White Salmon’s case, an entire city.

It begins with learning about basic fire safety principles, specifically those promoted in the National Protection Association’s Firewise program. At the program’s core, this involves clearing flammable vegetation from around a structure, doing regular upkeep and using fire-resistant building materials when able.

Mike Mullet of Underwood believes designing his home with these principles in mind spared it from the Tunnel Five Fire’s reaches.

Mullett and his family were having lunch in their home, which sits atop the bluff where the fire climbed up the steep rock face. Smoke slowly rolled toward them, prompting them to evacuate across the river to an inn in Hood River, Ore. Here, they waited and watched with bated breath.

“It was obvious it wasn’t going to get put out and that it was going to burn,” Mullett 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.”

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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.

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