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Franz to Vancouver audience: ‘We have got to realize that fires are now going to be an annual experience’

Commissioner of Public Lands joined other wildfire experts at Columbian Conversations

By Lauren Ellenbecker for The Columbian
Published: February 2, 2024, 10:51am
6 Photos
A panel of wildfire experts from around Washington discuss the issue Thursday during The Columbian Conversations: Wildfires in Southwest Washington event at Kiggins Theatre.
A panel of wildfire experts from around Washington discuss the issue Thursday during The Columbian Conversations: Wildfires in Southwest Washington event at Kiggins Theatre. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Dark billowing smoke, clusters of forest engulfed in flames and charred earth.

Those are the images in many Washingtonians’ minds as the fire season approaches — and those that kicked off The Columbian Conversations event Thursday in downtown Vancouver.

Videos and photographs of the human-caused Nakia Creek Fire flashed on the Kiggins Theatre’s tall screen, showing flames ripping through 2,000 acres on Larch Mountain’s southern face in 2022. The fire forced thousands of households to hurriedly evacuate as dry east winds fed its growth. Once the burn waned, foresters described how blackened trees lining rolling hills would take decades to recover.

That same year, 50 fires blazed through 54,300 acres in Western Washington, making it the largest wildfire season this side of the state has experienced since record-keeping began in 1984. Since then, fire has continued to encroach upon the region.

These events, coupled with alarming fire season trends, were the impetus for Columbian Conversations: Wildfires in Southwest Washington. The talk was part of the newspaper’s Community Funded Journalism initiative to further dialogue surrounding issues that touch community members’ lives.

“I ask myself every year: As summer approaches, how bad will the smoke and the fire season be? What can we do?” said Associate Editor Will Campbell.

Panelist Hilary Franz, state public lands commissioner, has pondered these same questions since she assumed her role in 2017, a year full of wildfires and record-breaking heat across the state.

Since then, Franz, who manages Washington’s wildfire fighting force, said the state has expanded its crews, upgraded equipment and reeled in millions in financial aid. But a glaring concern remains: Fires are spreading in high-population, temperate areas west of the Cascades.

“We have got to realize that fires are now going to be an annual experience,” Franz said.

Other panelists included Scott Johnson, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency emergency management division manager; Michael McNorvell, Underwood Conservation District wildfire resilience technician; John Nohr, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue fire chief; and Marc Titus, Department of Natural Resources community wildfire resilience coordinator.

All have an intimate experience with wildfires within Washington, whether it was fighting blazes on the front lines or coordinating public evacuations. Despite the diversity of perspectives, the panelists have a common message: prevention is crucial.

No immunity

Before Titus educated the public on wildfire preparedness, he was a wildland firefighter, a job he described as the most complex, dangerous emergency management role aside from military operations.

Titus sometimes spends 100 days away from home, putting in 16 hours a day for 21 days at a stretch, responding to wildland fires across the country. He and his crew have slept in dirt, sometimes going weeks without a single drop of water touching their skin. It was physically, emotionally and mentally demanding.

“If people are doing this to help you, you can help them by doing little things,” he said.

The top of that list of “little things” begins with learning about basic fire-safety principles, specifically those recommended by the National Protection Association’s Firewise program. At its core, this involves clearing flammable vegetation around a home, doing regular upkeep and using fire-resistant building materials.

Entire cities are also taking note, including White Salmon in the Columbia River Gorge, which was 2 miles from the Tunnel Five Fire that scorched 529 acres and destroyed multiple homes in Underwood. Here, a 100- to 200-foot buffer will border the city, requiring dense forest trimming and low-growing plant removal.

“It’s not a wall of fire you need to be worried about. It’s the tiniest little ember that you could hold in your hand,” Titus said. “That will take your house out.”

However, CRESA’s Johnson emphasized that community action shouldn’t stop at home maintenance.

Out of Clark County’s 520,900 residents, only 37,000 are registered for emergency alerts. A mindset change about wildfire threats needs to change, he said. To begin, residents should be familiar with how to read the weather, particularly wind and humidity, because this will influence a fuel’s combustibility.

“If you understand those elements, you take control of a lot of your own resilience,” Johnson said. “Fear of the unknown is the greatest fear we have as human beings.”

State, federal and local resources are simultaneously growing to help communities that are threatened by fire, including DNR’s Wildfire Ready Neighbors program, which connects residents to local wildfire experts.

“My job is to come to your house,” said McNorvell, Underwood Conservation District wildfire resilience technician. “That sounds menacing, but I come to your house and identify high risk areas to help you make your home more fire resilient.”

Preparing for the future

Wildfires are only going to intensify as summers become longer, drier and more erratic, Franz said.

Once forests are scorched, it can be a matter of decades before they reestablish and dominate landscapes once again. In some cases, it can take 100 years before they develop resistance to fire.

But the priority is protecting people.

DNR is positioning resources in fire-prone areas, as well as creating a forest health and fuels reduction plan west of the Cascades. Franz and other state officials are urging lawmakers to restore cuts made to wildfire preparedness and response programs.

Locally, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Chief Nohr said public education is paramount, namely tapping on the seriousness of fire risk. Flames aren’t exclusive to communities in wooded areas. They are encroaching upon residential areas and wiping out entire towns, as seen in Lahaina, Hawaii, or Paradise, Calif., he said.

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In August, the Jenny Creek Fire quickly spread north of La Center and scorched 32 acres. Although it was in a rural forested area, Nohr previously said the fire was noticeably fast and, if the wind was more prevalent that day, had the possibility of catching on neighboring structures.

“We need to get used to it here,” he said, adding behavioral changes are in order — think, firework bans.

Many community members in the audience said they live in rural areas susceptible to wildfires, including in towns that were previously placed in fire evacuation zones. Toward the end of the event, they asked panelists their burning questions.

One person asked about how people who have limited mobility or language barriers can be helped in fire emergencies. A rural Camas resident, who observed the Nakia Creek Fire first hand, asked how officials monitor fires and deem whether they are under control.

A man asked about how the region will be affected in the upcoming fire season following last year’s closure of the Larch Corrections Center, where hundreds of incarcerated men were trained to fight wildfires across the state for more than six decades.

“I dragged out fights with leadership above me. But I didn’t have control over that, and they made this decision,” Franz said. “I think one of the things we’ve done is leave this community in an area of significant risk.”