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King County’s Wildfire Reduction Plan Taps All Stakeholders

King County, Wash.,’s new 12-point Wildfire Risk Reduction Strategy enlists the expertise of 29 different local entities but also calls on the public and private forest landowners to do their part to mitigate wildfire risk.

Smoldering ground in the aftermath of a wildfire.
The ground still simmers from the Cold Springs Fire that swept through Okanogan County, Wash., on Sept. 10, 2020. (Amanda Snyder/The Seattle Times/TNS)
(Amanda Snyder/The Seattle Times/TNS)
Western Washington hasn’t generally been threatened by wildfires to the extent of other communities on the West Coast. But times are changing, and because of the increased risks to local areas, King County has developed and released its first Wildfire Risk Reduction Strategy.

The 12-point plan hits on three major disciplines:

  • Increasing the resilience of King County forests to wildfire;
  • Increasing wildfire preparedness, response and recovery within the wildland-urban interface (WUI); and
  • Responding quickly, effectively and safely when wildfire occurs.

The plan is, in part, a reaction by local officials to recent events, including two large wildfires in Oregon in 2020, a string of wildfires in Western Washington recently and the devastating fires that have occurred in California in recent years.

“There was a resurgence of interest in wildfire reduction in Western Washington, where generally wildfires were not a hazard that we did much planning around them due to the nature of our own forests and environment,” said Jared Schneider, hazard mitigation program manager for King County Emergency Management and one of two authors of the plan. “It hasn’t necessarily been one of the biggest hazards.”

The plan seeks the convergence and cooperation of the public as well as a multitude of other property owners and 29 agencies, including firefighting departments, environmental groups, forest management groups, and cities and tribes.

“It was certainly an undertaking, but there were many workshops and opportunities for discussion and many of these folks were subject matter experts in their field brought to the table together for the first time,” Schneider said.

Though some of the entities hadn’t worked directly together before, most have been partners with the King County Office of Emergency Management, which acted as the catalyst for getting the subject matter experts to build toward a consensus. That occurred through the course of vast discussions and guest speakers from various parties, jurisdictions and disciplines.

King County was able to pull from many other examples of wildfire mitigation plans in the West, but its plan is tailored to Western Washington where traditional fire mitigation activities, such as thinning, may not be appropriate on a large-scale basis.

Some of the plan's 12 goals include promoting species and structural diversity within the county forests; developing community response and recovery plans; and implementing the “Ready, Set, Go!” public education evacuation program in the WUI.

“It’s not a full and encompassing approach, but these are what we believe are the 12 best actions we can take in the next five years to really make a risk reduction effort come to fruition,” said Brendan McCluskey, emergency management director at King County.

Along with the public and various agencies tasked with maintaining a healthy, resilient forest, there are some 20,000 small forest landowners in the area, and all will be asked to take part in the plan, whether it’s becoming educated about risk and what to do about it; knowing what actions to take, such as evacuation; or clearing fuels.

“We’re asking them to be ready to take action and be prepared and essentially have a plan, stay informed about these things and do the actions we ask of them,” McCluskey said.

“We’re fortunate in King County to have a few organizations that have already been working with the small private forest landowners,” he continued. “But they’ve expressed the need for more resources to educate the landowners and partner with them to make sure we maintain this balance of wildfire risk [reduction] but also maintain these key ecological areas that make the region unique and vibrant.”