PULLMAN, Wash. — While it’s hard to envision raging forest fires while the Cascade Mountains are covered in deep snow, this year’s wet, warm winter could contribute to yet another round of destructive wildfires.
Washington State University Extension foresters say now is the last chance of the season to prevent and prepare for wildfires, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres, devastated the town of Malden, and caused some of the worst air quality on earth in 2020. WSU experts are helping rural residents get ready for fire season through virtual education sessions on Zoom.
The winter of 2020-2021 has been above average for temperatures. After one of the snowiest Februaries in decades, Washington currently has above average snowpack across most of the region. However, those wet conditions can spur growth of smaller plants in the forest’s understory, which act as tinder in the Northwest’s dry, hot summers. Warmer weather also brings the bark beetle season, in which tiny insects attack and kill trees, increasing fire danger.
“With current forest fuel conditions from years of fire suppression, and weather and drought events due to climate change, it’s more a question of when, not if, a wildfire will come through your property,” said Sean Alexander, WSU Extension’s Northeast Washington Forester. “In worst-case scenarios, such as the 2020 Labor Day fires fueled by intense wind, emergency planning and a community response is the best and sometimes only course of action.”
Half of Washington state is forested, and roughly 15% of that land is in the hands of more than 200,000 forest-owning families. Public education aimed at those landowners is a major focus of WSU Extension Foresters, who hold trainings throughout the year to help families protect their homes as well as their ecologically, financially, and personally valuable private forests.
On March 23, Extension forestry staff host Wildfire 101: Mitigation and Planning. Held in partnership with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, this online webinar will help rural home- and forest owners learn about basic wildfire behavior, forest fuel management, resilient landscaping, emergency planning, community action, and the home ignition zone. Participants will also hear from a landowner whose property partially burned in the 2014 Rising Eagle Road fire.
“One reason that many homes and structures are lost is that there isn’t a defensible space to safely fight fires around the building,” Alexander said. “By properly managing these areas, we increase the likelihood that firefighters can get in there to stop the fire while staying safe.
Forest owners can also create natural fuel breaks that slow fires and act as strategic points to contain the spread.
“While the work you do on your property directly protects you and your family, it also has a strong impact on your community and the state at large,” Alexander said. “If we all work together to manage our land, we can help reduce the occurrence of the high-intensity, severe wildfires that have inundated the Northwest in recent years.”
- Wildfire 101: Mitigation and Planning is 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, March 23. Admission is free.
- Extension Forestry realizes that broadband access is an issue that faces many rural communities. Recordings of the webinar will be available after the event.
— Washington State University CAHNRS
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