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News / Northwest

Volunteers power wildfire mitigation efforts in the Tri-Cities

Kennewick has a higher fire risk than 92% of U.S. communities. The nonprofit Team Rubicon helps respond to these disasters and prevent future ones.

By Mai Hoang, Crosscut
Published: May 20, 2024, 6:00am
6 Photos
Mike Dutter, of Portland, Oreg., (right) a Team Rubicon Sawyer 1, and Brian Miller, an Advanced Sawyer 1, make a plan to cut down a tree while working on a fire mitigation project. (M.
Mike Dutter, of Portland, Oreg., (right) a Team Rubicon Sawyer 1, and Brian Miller, an Advanced Sawyer 1, make a plan to cut down a tree while working on a fire mitigation project. (M. Scott Brauer for Cascade PBS) Photo Gallery

Wildfire season is likely months away in the Pacific Northwest, but the work of mitigating those fires has begun. Earlier this month, dozens of volunteers were cutting down trees and removing dead branches and brush in a 68-acre park in Kennewick, one of the Tri-Cities in southeastern Washington.

Karl Kaiyala, 72, a retired University of Washington researcher and instructor, was one of 37 volunteers working in Zintel Canyon with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that deploys volunteers to respond to natural disasters and prevent future ones from happening.

Kaiyala says he has found his second passion: working on reducing — and putting out  — wildfires. He knows that every dead tree he cuts now means one fewer tree that can catch and spread a wildfire later.

“I think fire mitigation is one of the most important components of reducing fire risk,” said Kaiyala, who previously researched topics such as obesity and drug addiction and taught statistics but now spends summers as a wildland firefighter.

The nonprofit dispatched volunteers in nearly 24 wildfire mitigation efforts throughout the U.S. in the past 16 months, including the one at Zintel Canyon earlier this month. In Kennewick, volunteers cut trees and removed branches and other overgrown vegetation that could contribute to wildfire spread.

Such work is crucial in southeastern Washington, where the fire risk is high due to the region’s dry, warm weather and strong winds.

Wildfires where wildlands and urban areas interface are a growing concern. When houses overlap with vegetation, the risk of human-caused wildfires increases, and so does the threat to lives and property.

Last summer, the Gray Fire destroyed nearly 260 homes and killed one person in Medical Lake outside of Spokane. In Zintel Canyon, the site of the recent Team Rubicon effort, a 30-acre fire a year ago caused damage to several structures, destroying one home.

“As things build out and we start looking at a lot of cities … pushing into more rural areas, you get that interface mix,” said Chad Michael, fire chief of the Kennewick Fire Department. “You have small pockets [in a city] still left fairly natural. Those are real hazards. It doesn’t take a lot of fire to get going.”

Growing risk

In a 2019 report, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said fires in the wildlife urban interface are a “rapidly growing threat to lives and property.” At the time of the report, the agency estimated that 46 million residences in 70,000 communities were at risk. And FEMA says the wildlife urban interface grows about two million acres a year.

Kennewick has fought numerous fires within or just outside city limits over the past six years. Michael said 2018 was a notable year, including the Bofer Canyon Fire, which started outside city limits but spread quickly into city limits, destroying several homes, vehicles and other personal property.

“I would say that was when wildfire was put on the radar for the community,” Michael said.

The fire was cited in the 2019 Benton County Comprehensive Plan Update, which emphasized that Kennewick had several other high-risk areas, including Zintel Canyon, the site of numerous fires, including nine in 2018 alone.

U.S. Forest Service data indicates Kennewick has a higher wildfire risk than 92.3% of communities in the nation. That ranking is notably higher than other high-risk cities in the Tri-Cities region, including Richland at 85.6% and Pasco at 71.4%.

Meeting a need

In late 2018, Kennewick’s fire, police and parks and recreation departments began exploring solutions for the Zintel Canyon fire risk, including community outreach to promote ways residents can make their homes more resilient against fires.

But it was clear that a large-scale effort to remove burnable materials from Zintel Canyon needed to be part of the plan. That led to the partnership with Team Rubicon. U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jake Wood started the organization after he led a small group in 2010 to aid people impacted by a massive earthquake in Haiti.

Over nearly 15 years, that first group of seven volunteers has ballooned to more than 160,000 working nationwide and internationally. Veterans make up about 70% of volunteers for many projects, but plenty of non-veterans participate, too. During the fire mitigation work in Kennewick earlier this month, the group was evenly split between veterans and non-veterans.

Team Rubicon’s first fire-mitigation stint took place in 2019. The most recent effort, earlier this month, was more extensive, with nearly double the number of volunteers and more time spent on site — 10 days vs. three.

Another notable development is that Team Rubicon has been ramping up its wildfire mitigation program in Washington and around the U.S.

While many will remember 2020 for the COVID-19 pandemic, there were also historic levels of fires throughout the Pacific Northwest, including a firestorm over Labor Day weekend that burned tens of thousands of acres throughout Central and Eastern Washington.

Team Rubicon, noting the historic level of wildfire activity, particularly close to homes and residents, saw a need to up its efforts to not just help after fires but to prevent them, said Duane Poslusny, the organization’s wildfire mitigation project manager. They started putting more effort into the mitigation process, which included developing a comprehensive playbook outlining their strategies and formalizing training for those who would cut trees. Today, the organization has 4,000 trained volunteer sawyers nationwide.

Poslusny said the organization needed to work with county and city fire and emergency service agencies that may require more staffing or funding to undertake such efforts.

“You have your local community experts. They know what work needs to be done, and we can provide the extra labor and soft skills to get it done,” Poslusny said.

Indeed, Michael, the Kennewick fire chief, said grants and other money are available. However, it’s still a challenge to make staffing available for such mitigation efforts when they are busy responding to day-to-day emergencies, underscoring the importance of volunteer organizations like Team Rubicon to fill this gap.

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Michael said that what Team Rubicon volunteers could do at Zintel Canyon in a week would probably take staff much longer due to the fire department’s regular work. “It’s hard to get capacity,” he said.

The ongoing need in Zintel Canyon was apparent when the greyshirts—the term for volunteers based on the color of their shirts—arrived.

They saw signs of last year’s fire: charred and dead trees.

The Zintel Canyon job sought volunteers within a 450-mile radius but also drew locals like John P. Buckley, a Hanford worker who served as planning chief for the Kennewick operation. Buckley got involved on Team Rubicon to expand his skills and boost his career in emergency services, but the camaraderie kept him volunteering.

Indeed, the volunteers in Kennewick each had their own story about what drew them to their first volunteer effort with Team Rubicon and why they stayed.

Dan Altmayer, a U.S. Army veteran from the Seattle area, heard about the organization in 2020 during a visit to a Veterans Affairs office. Altmayer’s volunteer work with the organization has varied, including helping Afghan refugees settle into new homes in Puget Sound.

Altmayer said the organization is valuable not just for the people it helps but for the volunteers: “We have a continued sense of mission and purpose,” he said.

Preventing wildfires that could damage homes and cause injury — even death — has become a top priority for many volunteers like Michael Chiu, who serves as the organization’s wildfire fuel mitigation planning coordinator.

Chiu retired in 2016 from the Bellevue Police Department. Walking around the Zintel Canyon site, he could articulate why the volunteers’ work mattered. All he had to do was point to the homes up the hillside from where the volunteers were removing and cutting trees, as well as noting the wind blowing beside him.

The dead trees, branches and debris, plus the wind and nearby homes, are a recipe for future problems.

The more fuel the volunteers could remove, the more likely those homes could stay intact in a fire, Chiu said.

“It gives structural firefighters more time to defend the homes,” he said. “We’re giving the Kennewick Fire Department a fighting chance.”

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