A Wildfire Summer

Smokey skies, wildfire-driven evacuations, desert-like hot and dry weather – all characteristics of an Inland Northwest summer the last few years. What an unpleasant shift from the “old” days. What the heck is going on? What’s causing this shift in wildfire dynamics? What can landowners do to reduce the risk?

The shift in wildfire dynamics seems to be a consequence of three primary factors:

  1. Changing weather patterns (i.e., climate change). The summer of 2021 was the hottest ever recorded in Spokane, with many other locations throughout the west reporting similar conditions. Accompanying this extreme heat was little to no precipitation, effectively baking the forest landscape. This trend, unfortunately, seems to be the new normal.
  2. Increased forest fuels. After the huge fire of 1910 left a footprint of three million acres burned in the Inland Northwest, wildfire suppression became a high priority for public and private land managers. Extensive resources were invested in this effort, which resulted in a significant reduction in wildfires from historic levels. But, (and this is a big but) in time, limiting wildfire on the landscape allowed for increased fuels, thicker forests, and more debris. This, consequently, has increased fuel load, which has resulted in larger, more intense fires that mock at times futile control efforts and cause unprecedented property damage and loss of life.
  3. More people building in the forest. Compounding this flammable mix has been an uptick in folks building homes within the forest. According to federal figures, home construction within the wildland-urban interface has increased by about 55% since 1990.  Houses and human life are at risk; consequently, significant resources are invested to combat wildfire in these settings.

Forest landowners should employ practices to minimize the chance of wildfire losses. Key practices would include promoting a healthy stand of properly spaced trees, appropriately disposing of slash from logging, and maintaining open roads for access.

To minimize risk to your buildings it is important to maintain “defensible space.” Critical steps to promote defensible space include widely spacing trees, pruning, and removing brush within about 100 feet of your structures. (Increase this distance to 300 feet on steeper slopes.) Don’t stack firewood, or other flammable material, next to your buildings. Keep gutters and roofs clear of debris. And install small-mesh roof vents.

In many areas, there is funding available to cover all, or most, of the costs associated with reducing hazardous fuels. Contact our office for more information about these programs.

Mike Wolcott, ACF, CF