Preparedness

What Emergency Officials Have Learned From This Summer's Disastrous Kennewick Fire

Tri-City fire officials are studying what went wrong, what went well and how they can do more to protect homes and lives.

by Cameron Probert, Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.) / November 5, 2018

(TNS) - The process of rebuilding is just starting for the families struck by the worst fire to hit the area in 25 years.

Steve and Candie Smith lost their 47th Avenue home in south Kennewick in a matter of minutes Aug. 11, but it’s likely going to be more than a year before their house is rebuilt.

“We’re really happy with how things are happening” said Candie, though she admits it’s been a slow process.

Tri-City fire officials are studying what went wrong, what went well and how they can do more to protect homes and lives.

They hope to turn what they learned from the 5,000-acre, wind-driven wildfire that destroyed five homes and damaged three others into a safer future.

The Kennewick Fire Department just released a summary of its discussions with the other agencies involved with the fire, starting with a comparison to the July 1993 fire that burned 2,000 acres — much of it the same hillside — and hospitalized two firefighters and threatened 100 homes.

Many issues from that blaze sounded similar to the Aug. 11 fire. In both cases, emergency crews struggled to get through roads congested with looky-loo spectators.

In 1993, then-Fire Chief Bob Kirk described lines of cars parked along Olympia, Vancouver and Rainier streets as onlookers walked toward the fire for a closer view.

While both wildfires burned with a similar intensity, the ‘93 blaze threatened homes but didn’t take any down.

Since then, Kennewick has grown by 34,000 people — with much of that growth on the south end of the city next to wildland areas and hills.

Getting on the same page

While fire officials praised the community, police and firefighters for working together to battle the blaze, the report shows they need to learn to communicate better with each other.

The summary gave no specifics, but said they discovered the need for agencies to work on using the same terms and making sure information is clear and going to the right person.

Kennewick’s fire officials also are working to tighten the bonds between the area departments, said Fire Chief Vince Beasley. New fire recruits are undergoing a 14-week regional training academy with Richland, Pasco and Benton County Fire District 1 crews. By training together, they can learn to communicate better.

“Responding personnel must not underestimate how weather conditions can change a routine fire into an overwhelming, herculean blaze in a matter of seconds,” said the summary.

Benton County Emergency Services is contributing to those efforts, too.

Emergency Manager Deanna Davis said the agency plans to bring all of the departments together before the start of the next fire season to talk about preparing and responding.

“We want to make sure that everyone is on the same page before we hit peak fire time,” she said.

The summary said that agency needs to have a better handle on what are the high-risk areas and identified hazards so it can proactively predefine areas for quicker releases of information and have better estimates on the number of people affected and homes threatened.

Part of those plans will include a refresher on evacuation levels.

Initially, a Level 1 order was issued on Twitter and the CodeRED alert system for neighborhoods hit by this summer’s fire.

That was meant to make people aware of an encroaching fire and to watch for further messages — Level 2 “get set to leave” and Level 3 “get out.”

Soon roads were crowded with looky-loos making it hard for people to make their way safely out of Canyon Lakes and Inspiration Estates, and making it hard to upgrade to a Level 3 alert.

When the fire turned toward Finley, another Level 1 evacuation message was sent to residents on Oak Street and in the Seal Springs area. Firefighters were able to get ahead of it before it reached homes there.

Along with arranging an annual strategy meeting, Benton County Emergency Services is in the middle of drafting a community wildfire protection plan. It’s been 13 years since it last drafted that kind of plan.

It will identify sections of the county at risk for devastating fires and ways to lower the risk and qualify for grants.

A draft is expected to be available in November for public comments.

Community efforts

With the Aug. 11 fire — now called the Bofer Canyon Fire — came a shift in how city officials look at other fire-prone spots, especially Zintel Canyon.

They put together a team of people across departments.

They reached out to homeowner associations in Canyon Lakes and Inspiration Estates to talk about defensible spaces and adopted the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise program.

And when Zintel Canyon caught fire again in late August, they were prepared.

They reached out to homeowners living near the 68-acre park between 7th Avenue and 24th. They stepped up, cutting low hanging branches and making fire breaks, removing dead wood and finding other ways to make fires less devastating.

“I learned a lot about the importance of defensible spaces,” said Kennewick spokeswoman Evelyn Lusignan. “We’re seeing what we can do for outreach and mitigation.”

The canyon is only the first of the high-risk spots the city plans to focus on.

“Right now we’re focusing on the two main areas, but we’re looking community-wide,” Lusignan said.

For Candie Smith, she didn’t have to look too far for ideas on how to make her new house on 47th safer.

She believes her neighbors’ home escaped destruction in August because their driveway wraps around the home, creating a paved barrier that made it just a bit harder for flames to reach the house and giving fire crews a few minutes longer to get there to defend it.

To learn more about protecting your home from fire, visit https://bit.ly/2D20Ck2.

Cameron Probert: 509-582-1402; Twitter: @cameroncprobert

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