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News / Clark County News

‘Wildfire risk is growing in our area’: Fire agencies working now to protect Southwest Washington

As climate change makes Northwest wildfire season longer, residents urged to be prepared

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 1, 2024, 6:14am
2 Photos
The Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, right, appears lush from Cascade Locks with the Bridge of the Gods on Tuesday morning. Rain now doesn&rsquo;t mean we won&rsquo;t have wildfires later. &ldquo;We went from a &lsquo;normal fire season&rsquo; being 100,000 acres to the 10-year average we&rsquo;re working with right now, which is in the 400,000-acre range,&rdquo; said Kyle Thomas-Milward from the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
The Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, right, appears lush from Cascade Locks with the Bridge of the Gods on Tuesday morning. Rain now doesn’t mean we won’t have wildfires later. “We went from a ‘normal fire season’ being 100,000 acres to the 10-year average we’re working with right now, which is in the 400,000-acre range,” said Kyle Thomas-Milward from the Washington Department of Natural Resources. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With rainy weather still in the forecast, it may seem like an odd time to be talking about wildfire. But that’s what Clark County fire districts and other agencies have been doing as they prepare for blazes that have become more common here.

“The normal before was we would have a grass fire or something in a greenbelt that necessitates a few homes being evacuated, not mass evacuations,” said Mike Lewis, an emergency manager for Clark County.

Yet, the past two years have brought wildfires — near Nakia Creek in 2022 and Jenny Creek in 2023 — that forced thousands of Clark County residents to evacuate their homes. Wildfire seasons have become longer and more severe, scorching more land and edging closer to populated areas, experts say.

“Wildfire risk is growing in our area. We have been seeing hotter and drier conditions on the west side of the state, which leads to earlier snowmelt, increased drought and more fuels from dead vegetation,” said Division Chief Chris Drone from Clark County Fire District 3, which covers Battle Ground and east Clark County. “All of these natural factors contribute to longer and more active fire seasons.”

Protect Your Home

The National Fire Protection Association offers these tips for protecting your home against wildfire.

Within 5 feet of your home:

  •  Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles.
  •  Replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles.
  •  Clean debris from exterior attic vents.
  •  Repair or replace damaged or loose window screens.
  •  Screen or box in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh.
  •  Move flammable materials like mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles or firewood piles away from exteriors.
  •  Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches.

Within 30 feet:

  •  Clear vegetation from under large stationary propane tanks.
  •  Create fuel breaks with driveways, walkways/paths, patios, and decks.
  •  Keep lawns and native grasses mowed to a height of 4 inches.
  •  Remove ladder fuels (vegetation under trees) so a surface fire cannot reach the crowns.
  •  Prune trees up to 6-10 feet from the ground; for shorter trees do not exceed one-third of the overall tree height.
  •  Space trees to have a minimum of 18 feet between crowns.
  •  Plan tree placement to ensure mature canopies are no closer than 10 feet to the edge of any structure.
  •  Limit trees and shrubs to small clusters of a few each to break up the continuity of the vegetation.

Beyond 30 feet:

  •  Dispose of heavy accumulations of ground litter/debris.
  •  Remove dead plant and tree material.
  •  Remove small conifers growing between mature trees.
  •  Remove vegetation adjacent to storage sheds or other outbuildings.
  •  Ensure trees 30-60 feet from the home have at least 12 feet between canopy tops.
  •  Trees 60-100 feet from the home should have at least 6 feet between canopy tops.

— Shari Phiel

That’s why Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, which provides emergency management services to the county and cities, has already begun convening emergency managers, fire chiefs, and officials from state and federal agencies to plan.

These meetings are important for exchanging information, making contacts and building relationships that are likely to be needed later, Lewis said.

“It’s one of the tenets of emergency management that you don’t want to meet the person across the table for the first time right in the middle of an emergency,” he said.

Rain now, fuel later

It’s hard to say how bad wildfire season will be this year. Our rainy spring is no guarantee that Clark County will be spared the ravages of wildfire this summer. At a forum on wildfire and smoke in April, University of Oregon professor Dan Gavin explained how a rainy spring actually provides fuel for fire by producing abundant grasses and shrubs that become highly flammable during the dry summer months.

Gavin said past wildfires also play a role in where new fires may burn.

“Large areas of forestland have changed because of past fires,” Gavin said. “These areas are regrowing from massive fires in the last three years and are susceptible to re-burns.”

The single largest contributor to wildfires is humans. Between 85 and 90 percent of all wildfires are caused by humans. Human-caused climate change is also increasing the frequency and severity of fires, according to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study of wildfires. Nearly all observed increases in burned areas over the past 50 years in California were due to human-caused climate change, the study found. From 1971 to 2021, the state saw a 172 percent increase in burned areas. From 1996 to 2021, it saw a 320 percent increase.

The authors of the study said the increases in burned areas were consistent with human-caused climate change and unlikely to have resulted from natural variability alone.

One of the deadliest fires in western United States history was the 2018 Camp Fire near Paradise, Calif. The fire started when a poorly maintained electric transmission line failed during a windstorm. The fire cost more than $150 million to put out, caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damage and resulted in 85 deaths.

Clark Public Utilities is working to ensure something similar never happens here. Spokesman Dameon Pesanti said the utility is working diligently to ensure plans, staff and infrastructure are prepared.

“Wildfire planning is approached from two directions: prevention and response. The electric system in Clark County is built to a level that others in the industry are only now working to reach,” Pesanti said.

Despite already exceeding best practices for safety and resilience, Pesanti said the public utility continues to prioritize improvements. These improvements come from investments in construction, maintenance and operation.

As the county’s population has continued to grow, housing developments have moved farther into rural areas more prone to wildfire. This has created new challenges for the utility.

In urban areas, the utility focuses more on personal safety and educating customers about avoiding downed power lines, electric equipment and reporting issues. In rural areas, the focus is more on safety through system design, construction and maintenance, as well as vegetation management and swift response to incidents.

Pesanti also said utility crews are trained and prepared to drive or walk into challenging terrain when fire conditions are present. He said staff work closely with local fire departments and emergency responders.

“During high-risk weather events, tanker trucks and crews are staged in strategic locations, and line trucks are equipped with fire response equipment,” Pesanti added.

Resource management

While county government resources are not used for fighting fires, Lewis, the emergency manager, said the county still has a role in supporting first responders and the public. The county also manages its public lands, like parks, greenways and walking trails. For example, Clark County Public Works crews have been burning slash piles at Camp Bonneville throughout May to reduce the availability of wildfire fuel.

To Learn More

Clark County residents can sign up for emergency alerts at CRESA911.org. The website also has information on how to prepare yourself and your family for an emergency.

For information on wildfire prevention, go to /www.dnr.wa.gov/WildfirePrevention.

 

 

Drone, of Fire District 3, said sharing resources with other fire agencies and the state Department of Natural Resource is critical, especially during a severe fire. In addition, Drone said the district makes sure all of its firefighters are trained in wildland firefighting.

“This specialized training is very important to ensure that the rural areas of the district are protected,” he said. “This also allows for appropriate aiding of other agencies at local, state and national levels on major wildfire incidents.”

Kyle Thomas-Milward from the Washington Department of Natural Resources said the state began shifting how it responds during fire season around 2020. He said DNR looked at how many acres were burning each year, where and when fires were occurring, and then began adjusting.

“We went from a ‘normal fire season’ being 100,000 acres to the 10-year average we’re working with right now, which is in the 400,000-acre range,” he said.

Thomas-Milward also said the fire season itself seems to be changing. Where the season was once from July to September, it’s now creeping well into October.

With wildfires that large, he said the agency is having to rethink how to combat them. This includes again stationing a helicopter and seven-person crew at Camp Bonneville in east Clark County, as well as changing staffing.

“DNR is investing more time and energy into full-time firefighters, having people on staff who are qualified to fight fires during fire season but when it’s not fire season, they’re doing other work,” Thomas-Milward said.

That other work could be in fire prevention, forest health, debris management, controlled burns or planting trees.

DNR also is working with the state Legislature to make funding available for staffing, equipment and technology; sharing surplus equipment with fire districts; and making sure resources are deployed appropriately.

Thomas-Milward agreed the relationships with the local fire districts play a crucial role in fighting wildfires.

A final recommendation

Agencies’ wildfire strategy includes educating at-risk residents living in areas where urban and rural meet. Fire District 3 offers no-cost wildland risk surveys at homeowners’ request.

“We then discuss mitigation strategies and actions the homeowner can take to reduce these risks, with the overall goal of increasing the likelihood their home is protected in the event of a large fire event,” Drone said.

He said the district also meets regularly with various homeowners associations to provide guidance on wildfire preparedness and prevention.

If there’s one recommendation Lewis would give to Clark County residents to prepare for the upcoming fire season, it would be this: Sign up for public alerts at CRESA911.org.

“It’s imperative,” Lewis said.

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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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