Officials Warn of Serious Fire Season, Encourage Homes Be Made ‘Defensible Spaces’

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About a decade ago, the prospect of a wildfire in southwest Washington wasn’t as severe as it is today, said Chehalis Fire Chief Ken Cardinale, adding that changing weather patterns resulting in fire-prone conditions will require the public to be more proactive in protecting property.

“The threat of wildfire here in Lewis County has changed over the past five to 10 years,” said Cardinale. “The weather patterns are changing. It’s been dryer, more arid and the summers have been longer.”

Cardinale said that for the past few years, he’s conducted community meetings at local granges, in cooperation with county fire district chiefs, on how to make homes as fire-proof as possible.

As a former California firefighter, Cardinale said he’s watched as changing weather patterns have crept up the west coast, bringing with them enhanced opportunities for wildfire. 

The combustible, natural fuel that feeds fires has always been here, but drier, warmer conditions increase fuel’s potential to actually contribute to a wildfire.

Cardinale recounted recent Department of Natural Resources statistics that showed at the beginning of May, moisture levels in dead logs and vegetation — potential fuel — was down to a low 20 percent. Warming temperatures will likely make that percent drop lower, he said.

That fact, coupled with humidity dropping to the range of 8 to 10 percent, is a bad combination — one that only needs an ignition source for a fire to start.

For that reason, Cardinale said it’s especially vital individuals adhere to any burn bans or restrictions. Last week, burning restrictions were put in place for unincorporated Lewis County. The restrictions were lifted Wednesday morning.

Cardinale said folks should make their home and property a “defensible space.”

Make a zone extending 30 feet from the house that’s clear of all dead leaves or pine needles. Keep such fuels off the yard, roof and rain gutters. Trim trees so the branches are 10 feet from other trees. Make sure that no branches hang over the roof. Remove or prune flammable plants near windows. Clear out flammable plants from underneath decks.

Mow grass to 4 inches or shorter at least 100 feet from the house and remove any leaves, needles, twigs, bark, cones and small branches.

“The spacing between grass, shrubs, and trees is crucial to reduce the spread of wildfires. The spacing needed is determined by the type and size of brush and trees, as well as the slope of the land. For example, a property on a steep slope with larger vegetation requires spacing between trees and shrubs than a level property that has small, sparse vegetation,” reads literature Cardinale presents during community presentations that he provided The Chronicle.

He said homes being built in forested, rural areas have added to the risk of homes burning during fire season. If fire were to break out in such an area, he said it’s often not the wall of flames that results in a house’s destruction. Rather, it’s embers raining down from nearby fires that catch fuel close to homes on fire. That’s why it’s essential fuels be cleared from around houses, Cardinale said.

With a majority of Lewis County’s fire departments being volunteer-operated, Cardinale said turning a house into a defensible space can assist first responders.

“Here in Lewis County, many of the departments are all volunteer, and during the daytime, (there’s) limited staffing,” he said.

Laura Hanson, chief of Lewis County Fire District 5 in Napavine, said there’s generally a concern among volunteer departments — like the one she leads — that there will be enough people around to effectively respond during an emergency situation.

She said that makes mutual aid among other county and municipal departments — along with DNR resources — especially vital.

Cardinale said the DNR has about seven engines stationed for the Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties and two or three helicopters available to respond to wildfire threats.

In upcoming training, Hanson said her staff will discuss the likely serious upcoming season and coordinate with neighboring fire districts.

Volunteer departments are often the first line of defense during a wildfire, Hanson said.

Lewis County Fire District 3 was the first to respond to a fire in Mossyrock in March that burned over 100 acres, before other fire districts and DNR resources arrived at the scene — making a long day for volunteers.

The strain that a tough fire season has on volunteer fire departments wasn’t lost on former Centralia resident Mykal Taylor, who along with his wife and a couple friends are working to establish nonprofit status for Mana Wildfire Logistics. Taylor said that, once established, they intend to support fire departments across Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, and provide wildfire prevention and evacuation training to communities. 

After learning of a series of break-ins in a small volunteer department in unincorporated Klickitat County, Taylor and a small group came to Chehalis to gather supplies for the department. Over the course of two weekends earlier this month, they set up shop in front of Walmart, and received food donations and a total of 3,432 bottles of water that firefighters in that area can stockpile and use when responding to emergencies.

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