Wildfire Safety Tips for Homeowners and Travelers
Wildfire risk is increasing across Washington state and Idaho as our summers get hotter and drier, and Crystal Raymond’s job is to help residents and travelers stay safe.
The University of Washington climate adaptation specialist works with computer models and public authorities to protect Northwest communities from out-of-control blazes during our fire season, which starts as early as July and runs through September.
“Living in the Northwest means living with fire to some extent,” she says, “so we need to find that balance between protecting our communities and recognizing that we wouldn’t have beautiful forests and the beautiful places where we live if we didn’t have fire.”
Where is the fire risk climbing?
“People who live in the wildland-urban interface to the more rural parts of Western Washington should be considering wildfire, but it’s creeping across the whole region. The rain shadow over the Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands is probably going to experience more increase because it’s drier. Puget Sound lowlands where we had oak forests or grasslands may also be a little more prone to wildfire. Those areas between the wet climate of Western Washington and our drier climate of Eastern Washington are where we may see a transition to higher fire risk sooner. Eastern Washington forests are more similar to California — drier and adapted to fire — but have a shorter fire season.”
What role does fire play east of the Cascades?
“Those forests developed with a lot of wildfires. For the seed of ponderosa pine trees to germinate, they need bare mineral soil. Fire will do that. Lodgepole pine has a serotinous cone, where the heat of fire will release the seeds. The ability for deer and elk to move comes from the fire that clears out the forest. This mix of live and dead trees and open areas is important for wildlife. Grasslands and shrublands thrive on fire.”
What about west of the Cascades?
“Fire plays a different role. We’re talking about a fire that burns maybe every 250 to 1,000 years. These forests burned in the 1800s and 1700s, just not as much in recent memory. It is actually typical that a fire in western Oregon and Washington could burn and kill most of the trees in a forest, and then the forest is adapted to regrowing and developing after that.”
Where can we see a fire-dependent ecosystem?
“The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Those low-elevation, open pine forests are places that are just so, so beautiful, and they’re kept that way because we allow some fire into the system.”
How can travelers stay safe?
“For any summertime travel, you want to be aware of any fires in the area, advisories of what places might be closed and red flag warnings, which mean an extreme fire weather situation in the forecast. Check with state agencies, federal forest websites and the National Interagency Fire Center.”
What can homeowners do?
“Clearing vegetation and flammable material can protect your house and protect firefighters. Also, think about the building materials: the deck and roof and siding.”
What are predictors of a severe wildfire season ahead?
“Warm temperatures and periods of time without rain. Hot temperatures make the vegetation even drier. Another critical factor can be when you have an east wind and you have hot, dry wind from the eastern side of the mountains. You get very low relative humidity and that creates a short-term situation where you can really have a lot of fire danger.”
More fire safety resources
Learn more about the role of fire and how to stay safe from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the National Park Service and the National Fire Protection Association.
– Written by Sarah Anne Lloyd
–This column appears in the AAA Washington member publication, Journey, July/August 2020 edition