Though it might not look it, it’s officially wildfire season in Washington and some landowners in fire-prone areas are taking advantage of a strategy to reduce their risk.
For a lot of reasons, land managers say that fire danger has been increasing in recent years. The woods are full of fuel after decades of fire suppression, lack of thinning, pest problems, and sometimes, drought. And what do we do? We build homes in the trees.
“People are moving out, they want to live out in the woods and it’s a risk they take, and that’s why we try to come in and help them out by trying to get their houses a little more fire resilient,” said Chuck Wytko, landowner assistance manager with the state Department of Natural Resources. Fuel reduction work involves thinning of trees, pruning of branches to minimize what fire managers call “ladder fuels,” brush control and slash disposal.
For a landowner with acreage, the preventive work can be an overwhelming project so Wytko suggests a multi-year effort.
“If we can first sign them up to do basically 100 feet around their house, that’s a start and then maybe the following year they can do another 100 feet so over a period of time, we can protect their whole property, not just their structure,” Wytko explained.
The state has multiple programs to help landowners pay for the fuel reduction work, which costs an estimated $650-$750 an acre. For example, under one program, Wytko says if a landowner puts up $10,000, the state will reimburse $5,000.
The state and counties, such as Chelan and Kittitas, work to recruit landowners who understand what they’re trying to do.
“We try to find that person that has the energy to do that and we do, we find those, and they rally the troops,” said Wytko. He said a single landowner in the Lake Wenatchee-Leavenworth area led the way last year.
“That community up in the Chumstick and Plain area, they had the Eagle Fire last year. That scares people, and hopefully they come to us, and some have,” he said. And then they talk to their neighbors because “they get it now, they’ve seen some of the fires that come through,” said Wytko, “and they do the defensible space around their house and the neighbors say ‘Jeez, that looks pretty good’ and it makes their home kind of a park-like setting, but it’s also fire resistant.”
Does it work? Ask landowners who were spared in the destructive 2012 Taylor Bridge Fire, that burned 23,000 acres near Cle Elum.
“The testimony in the Taylor Bridge Fire is not one of the houses or structures that was treated with fuels reduction projects or our cost-share stuff, were damaged or lost,” Wytko declared.
As of Tuesday, summer wildfire rules are now in effect that impact loggers, road work, firewood cutters and off-roaders. Last year, according to the DNR, more than 700 fires burned 126,000 acres across Washington.