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Western Washington Fire Danger is Very High

It is not just California that has a huge fire threat.

by Eric Holdeman / September 7, 2020

California is having record blazes right now. Their neighbors to the north, here in Washington State are also facing severe fire dangers--and not just on the traditionally dry east side of the Cascade Mountains. 

See this opinion piece I had published in the Seattle Times back in 2017 Western Washington not immune from wildfire risk 

One last note on the publication. It was planned to run in 2016, and then it started raining. I told the editor to pull the piece because it would fall on deaf ears. "Fire danger, what fire danger--It's raining."  So, he ran it in 2017. 

The full text is below:

To the Seattle Times

Western Washington has High Wildland-Urban Fire Danger [My original title]

By  Eric Holdeman, Director Center for Regional Disaster Resilience

Wildland fires in the United States are becoming commonplace. There have been significant fires all throughout the West in the last month with individual homes and even neighborhoods being lost to fire. In California, their wildland fire season is now year-round. Typically, the wildland fire season here in Washington State begins in June and really heats up in the months of July, August and September. It is true that the majority of wildland fires here in Washington State occur east of the Cascades.

If you asked people to list the natural hazards and risks that we here in Western Washington should pay attention to, that list would likely include earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, river and urban flooding, mud slides, avalanches and the like. It is unlikely that many people other than firefighters and emergency managers would even mention the danger of a forest fire in Western Washington.

What most people don’t realize is that the wildland fire risk is not confined to Eastern Washington. Ask any professional firefighter and they will tell you that each year we here in Western Washington during the months of July through September and into October are sitting on a ticking time bomb that will only be defused when our normally wet autumn weather returns in the late fall. Until then, we will have an extremely high risk of a wildland fire extending into urban areas in all parts of Western Washington.

We have enjoyed an early onset of summer with dry weather that began in June. This does not bode well for the rest of this summer and the fire conditions we can expect to have until the rains return in October.

Much of our highest population density areas exist in an “urban forest” environment.  This is not just the foothills of the Cascades, but extends into the city limits of urban and suburban cities. We have entire communities nestled in wooded areas with green belts running throughout and parklike forested greenspaces. Typically, none of the Fire Wise practices used in Eastern Washington to reduce the impact of a wildland fire spreading have been applied by homeowners here on the West Side. 

Short term there are a few measures you can take to protect your own home.  Clear any debris from your roof that are now tinder dry.  This includes cleaning out your gutters of any dry leaves and needles.  Cut away any tree limbs that directly overhang your roof. Limb up your trees so that a fire spreading on the ground cannot leap to the tree canopy and then spread from tree to tree.  Move any woodpiles a good distance away from your home. Don’t provide a supply of flammable materials by having the woodpile stacked right next to your house. Keep vegetation cleared away from your home, especially those types of bushes and trees that have a high sap content and can flame up like a torch when on fire.  There are many other steps you can take and a good website for advice on protecting your home is www.firewise.org

Lastly, one of the best opportunities long-term to protect your home is choosing the most fire resistant roofing materials possible.  Some home owner associations still have covenants that require wood shake roofs as one of the roofing options. I know, because where I live there is a requirement in place for either tile or wood shake roofs.  I had to replace my wood shake roof with another shake roof because I could not convince my neighbors to adjust their value system to include protecting their homes from wildland fires—a danger I could not convince them exists.

Remember that a firestorm will eventually happen here on the West Side. It will be a predictable surprise to some and a danger to all.

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