Western Washington wildfire is different — and it’s coming

Wildfires like the ones that struck Portland's suburbs are inching closer to Seattle. Here's how we can prepare.

The town of Phoenix, Oregon, is shown from a drone after being destroyed by wildfires on September 15, 2020.

In this photo taken by a drone, homes leveled by the Almeda Fire at the Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix, Oregon, Sept. 15, 2020. (Noah Berger/AP)

In the live-action remake of the wildfire evacuation of Diablo and Newhalem, Washington, Fire Brigade Chief Cody Watson hears that there's only way out of town. He then stares directly into the camera. “We need to get everyone out of there...,” he says, whipping off his aviators, “safely.”

Watson and his fake mustache star in Escape From Diablo, a 10-minute film created in the aftermath of the Goodell Creek Fire, which burned at the edge of North Cascades National Park in 2015. All the characters in the film are played by actual Seattle City Light employees who work at the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. As fire chief there, Watson is usually the only full-time firefighter, with a volunteer force that includes everyone from gardeners to painters. In the movie, City Light employees poke fun at themselves like characters from the Parks and Recreation TV show, while showing the residents of Diablo and Newhalem what to expect when fire comes again. 

During the 2015 fire, City Light had to shut down transmission because the smoke conducted so much electricity that sparks and visible arcs of energy jumped off the lines. The fire crossed the Skagit River, burned on both sides of Highway 20, and damaged cables so much that City Light had trouble communicating with the city of Diablo. Employees and residents evacuated east toward the town of Winthrop — only to discover that town was evacuating from a fire of its own. Some evacuees ended up 341 miles away, in Wenatchee, and it took five days to contain the Goodell Creek fire. 

Watson and the City Light team dreamed up Escape From Diablo in 2017 as a lighthearted way to make sure everyone knew there was an evacuation plan in place. But it hadn’t been long since those emergency plans were first drawn up. 

Just three years before the Goodell Creek Fire, a forester named Al Craney met with the manager of the hydroelectric project to recommend that the City Light employees and surrounding towns become part of the National Fire Protection Association’s preventive Firewise program

The manager agreed — but not, according to Craney, without some initial skepticism: “He said to me, ‘We’ve been here since 1937 and we haven’t had a problem. Why do you think we have a problem now?’ ”

Skepticism like that used to be the norm. Even less than 10 years ago, huge fires on the west side of the Cascades were relatively unheard of. Why worry about fire in forests that drip with moss, where any given day it’s more likely to be raining than not? 

Because of Craney’s efforts, when Cody Watson became full-time fire chief in 2014, overseeing Firewise was part of the job description. Only a year later, the Goodell Creek Fire came down the mountain in exactly the same spot Watson and City Light had done a Firewise project. 

“The fire got so intense that it jumped the fire line, and potentially, if we hadn’t done that Firewise project, there’s a very good likelihood that we might’ve lost a couple buildings,” says Watson. “Validating is a good word for it.”

Knowledge and responsibility

Al Craney has been seeing big burns get too close for comfort for 50 years. His relationship with megafires started with a bolt of lightning in July 1970, when he was rappelling from helicopters for the Forest Service as part of its new Helitack smokejumping crew. A storm came through and set a number of fires in Eastern Washington that were larger and less predictable than any he’d ever seen. He remembers having to airlift another smokejumper who had broken a leg and hip after the parachute got caught on a dead tree. 

Fast forward to 2014, and Craney, by then a forester with decades of experience, got called in to assess the damage in the Methow Valley after the Carlton Complex fire died down. At the time, the Carlton Complex was the largest fire in Washington state history. (That record was surpassed in 2015 and again this year.) 

“People lost everything,” he says. “They lost their horses — that’s like their family. It was very emotional dealing with the damage and working with folks over there.”

Craney has spent the past few years avoiding retirement by working on Skagit County’s wildfire protection plan. Last year, Craney and his co-workers at the Skagit Conservation District completed the county’s wildfire risk map. 

“After the Oso landslide, people were saying, ‘Why didn’t somebody tell us we were at risk?’ It’s like with fire, we need to get this out into documents so people know that they’re in an area of elevated risk,” Craney says. 

“That was haunting me after the Oso slide: we have that responsibility to our citizens, we’ve got the knowledge,” he says.

Craney teamed up with Jenny Coe, the community wildfire resilience coordinator at the Skagit and Whatcom county conservation districts, to share this knowledge with people living in their area. That means giving out resources and education opportunites directly through the conservation district, connecting people with their local fire districts, or connecting entire communities with the state Department of Natural Resources for help planning group responses in the event of a big fire. In 2019, Craney and Coe visited 400 different residents of Skagit County.

“I feel like we’re the liaison between these different scales, and the opportunity to educate different people about how all this works is empowering for them and the neighborhood,” says Coe. “They now have the connections to someone like a forester, or DNR, or the county emergency management division.” 

Protecting buildings 

Even if the broader conception of Western Washington wildfire risk has yet to catch on with residents of the wet side, Coe has noticed increasing interest — especially on days when the smoke settles in. Even though most of the smoke that arrives in Western Washington originates from fires elsewhere, it still drives people to pay attention and give her a call. 

Transplants from fire-ravaged California and Colorado are some of those who contact her most often to ask about fire protections here in Washington. “I think a lot of people are moving up to the Pacific Northwest from California because they’re escaping those conditions,” she says. Increasingly, urban dwellers have been reaching out, too. 

When Coe meets someone who wants to know more about protecting their home from fire, she starts by suggesting improvements to the building itself. 

“There’s been a lot of studies and science on how homes burn,” says Coe. “The reality is that embers are usually the reason why houses are destroyed.”

Those embers can get into a house through the mesh screening on the house’s vents, or turn a wood shake roof into a giant bonfire. Safeguarding most houses rarely requires changing much beyond the 30- to 100-foot radius around the building itself. 

“For the most part, a fire spreads like fingers dragging across the landscape, and it's often started by these embers that are flying through the air. Embers can travel more than a mile from the main fire front,” says Ashley Blazina, community wildfire preparedness coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources. 

To help keep the embers out, Blazina and Coe both recommend replacing or covering the standard quarter-inch mesh on a house’s vents with mesh that has eighth-inch holes. Blazina likens fire resilience work to seasonal yard work, and adds that a lot of seasonal home maintenance people do anyway — like cleaning the gutters and the roof — also prevents fire damage. Mulch is also highly flammable, and Blazina recommends keeping it five feet away from the house if possible.

“A number of people I’m working with are seeing impacts of drought on their property — they often bring that up before I get a chance to talk about drought conditions,” Coe says. 

Certain species of trees, like western red cedar and western hemlock, fare poorly in Northwest dry spells, and people are starting to notice trees beginning to suffer or die on their properties as a result of years of unseasonably dry weather. 

“A big issue is that people want to do work around their house pruning their trees or clearing out their underbrush, and then they don’t have anywhere to take the debris, and we don’t particularly want them burning piles,” says Coe. 

Escaped debris burns were the top cause of wildfires in the state this year — and not always because the people who started them were doing anything wrong. An ill-timed gust of wind can pick up embers and deposit them in grasses or shrubs where they can grow into an inferno. Coe helps run grant-funded wood-chipping projects that give people a free way to get rid of excess vegetation in their yards without risking a huge blaze. 

For neighbors ready to go one step further and prepare at the community level, Coe recommends joining Firewise to figure out their collective wildfire risk. Not every neighbor needs to join: It could just be five or six people willing to form a committee and put in a little effort to begin educating their neighbors. When that happens and a neighborhood gets certified as Firewise, they get access to more resources, grants and sometimes breaks on their insurance premiums. Coe helps guide neighborhoods in Whatcom and Skagit counties through that process. 

Even though her job focuses on staving off disaster, Coe has found that different priorities meet in the land we each live on, and a lot of them include ecological restoration: Even as they ask which plants are most fire resistant, many homeowners also want to know which native plants they could plant or which attract pollinators. 

To help homeowners balance those priorities, Coe sends homeowners a post-consultation report that includes pictures of everything they talked about — including images of pesky (and usually flammable) noxious weeds.

No time to plan in the middle of a blaze

It’s impossible to know exactly how many close calls with fire happen in Western Washington every year. Though increasing numbers of people lead to more sparks flying, it also means more eyes to spot and call in a fire before it gets out of hand. Plus, in big metro areas like King and Pierce counties, local firefighters usually have more resources and can get to fires faster than crews in underfunded rural districts, who have more ground to cover. 

But as fires in other parts of the state — and around the country — continue to break size and speed records, they require more hands on deck to contain them. Western Washington often supplies Eastern Washington with both fire crews and equipment because its big burns tend to be more intense and more destructive. 

But fire chiefs and emergency managers are now confronting a terrifying dilemma: What happens when explosive fires start on both sides of the state at once, and there aren’t enough crews available to help?

Craney says that for people living way up in the mountains of Skagit County — “the boonies” — being prepared for a major fire also means knowing when to escape. He doesn’t care for the phrase “defensible space” in those situations, because it gives people the impression that fire crews will be able to defend the property, but that might not be true. 

“We’re talking about survivable space,” he says. “If you leave, will your home survive?” 

When fires get that intense in those mountain forests, it’s not so much the flames but the heat, smoke and ash that’ll kill you: “You can’t breathe.”

In those situations, having a go-bag at the ready, a safe meeting place in mind and a plan of how to get there can save lives. Blazina, the Department of Natural Resources coordinator, says that a fire-ready emergency bag has pretty much the same components as an earthquake kit, so anyone who’s already prepared for The Big One can check that off their list. 

Many housing developments branch out from one main arterial road, which can create headaches for people left with one escape route. During 2018’s Camp fires in Paradise, California, traffic came to a standstill after some people fleeing the fires forgot to turn on the air recirculation in their cars and, feeling suffocated, abandoned them. 

This year, as fires raged across the state on Labor Day weekend, Blazina noticed something about what that meant for Western Washington: “There was just so much of the state that was burning, so a lot of those forces in Western Washington were already dispatched to the east side of the state, and that’s the perfect storm of when those fires can get really big.” 

The west side was blanketed by smoke that weekend, but emergency planning teams in King County were also thinking about the potential for fires nearby. A fire in Pierce County took a couple of days to contain. 

“I've talked to folks about this,” says Lara Whitely Binder, King County’s climate adaptation specialist. “It feels like the bull’s-eye just got moved a little closer this summer.”

Binder works alongside Derrick Hiebert, a hazard mitigation specialist with King County, who lately has focused on coordinating all the wildfire protection activities around the county. This can take some juggling because King County has so many jurisdictions: Fire districts large and small, conservation districts, public utilities, water districts and emergency planners all need to be on the same page in the event of a major disaster. 

Following a few years of intense fire seasons around the West, Hiebert is noticing a shift in how much people care about fire preparation. In 2018, the Washington state Legislature asked the Department of Natural Resources to map the entire state’s wildland-urban interface — the places where human habitation and forestland most overlap and fires are most likely to occur. Those maps were released this year, and Hiebert and other emergency planners are using them to figure out which places might be most at risk. 

“We know a lot of what we need to do,” Hiebert says. “The number of requests from community members has been quite high. We have mapping data, we have engagement from leaders. I think we have a way to move forward.” 

One of the potential ways to move forward might be to learn from the successes of pre-colonial fire management. In some inland areas of King and Pierce counties, the grassy, open spots where settlers first put their homes were so appealing as real estate in the first place only because of regular controlled burning by Indigenous people. Now they’ve gradually become filled in with denser vegetation, since most American settlers didn’t practice prescribed burning and didn’t learn it from their Indigenous neighbors. 

Now, some spots in Western Washington have thicker forests — in wildfire science terms, “a denser fuel load” — than at any point in known human habitation. In practice, this means that the single-family detached home and fire-free backyard is a relatively new ecosystem here in Washington, and one that could ultimately be at greater risk of damage from big fires than previous methods of human habitation in the area. 

Deploying prescribed burns has gained currency in firefighting circles in recent times, and Coastal Salish tribes like the Tulalip people have brought the practice back as a way to manage the landscape for traditional foods and medicines. 

“Back in the day, before European contact, Indigenous people would go out and perform low-grade fire management burning techniques to enhance huckleberry as a food source,” says Ross Fenton, a forester with the Tulalip Tribes Natural Resources Program. “Today, the effort to maintain those same huckleberry areas without prescribed burning is much more labor intensive and expensive than it was centuries ago.” 

Although interest has grown across the West in recent years, most non-Indigenous government agencies have yet to implement prescribed burns at a large scale.

The secret to resilience? Talking

It’s impossible to stop the massive fire that will one day come for the forests of Western Washington. Prevention and control alone will never be enough. For all the talk of preventing debris burning in one’s yard, the diversity of potential fire-start scenarios is almost impossible to comprehend. A fire once began near Forks because a water bottle had been left outside. When the sun shined through the half-full bottle, the bottle acted like a magnifying glass and the ground started sizzling. Not much could be done to prevent that. 

That’s where resilience becomes key: learning what to do when the inevitable occurs. 

Hilary Lundgren is excited to talk. Lundgren is the coordinator of the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, and what that means, she says, is that she mostly spends her time building networks: introducing people to each other so they can also get excited to talk about fire. 

The basic idea of the network is to bring together anyone who has experience with fire and anyone who wants to learn. The goal is to share knowledge, but also to allow relationships to grow between people who are all trying to learn new ways of living with fire on the land. That includes everyone from homeowners associations to conservation districts, business owners, public utility districts, Department of Natural Resoures employees, emergency planners, Jenny Coe and Cody Watson. 

The morning we spoke, Lundgren ran a webinar for 122 people interested in how fire behaves in shrub steppe ecosystems. She also regularly hosts coffee breaks for people to meet up (virtually these days) and chat about anything they please. 

At the heart of the idea is the acknowledgment that we’re social beings who are more likely to reach out and ask questions of people we know than people we don’t. When disaster strikes, will you know who to call?

Fire Chief Watson says that when he’s invited to panels about fire preparedness, he stresses the importance of talking to your neighbor. For local government employees like him, that means building relationships with people in other government agencies. During the Goodell Creek fire, City Light was able to call in reinforcements much faster because Watson had previously built up trust with staff just down the road at North Cascades National Park. 

Talking to so many people who have literally walked through fire means that Lundgren takes a longer view of what it means to be prepared. After the buildings burn down and the trees are blackened and charred, who in town has readied a contract with a waste management crew? Who has contact information for all the religious and charitable organizations who are more than willing to show up with specialized skills to lend a hand to an injured community? These are the kinds of questions she hopes to help people think about and eventually answer together with their neighbors. 

“We need to learn how to recover,” says Lundgren. “Because we can prepare, but the amount of work that it takes to prepare, sometimes I don’t know if there’s time.”

There hadn’t been many communities on the west side engaged in the network until last year, when Lundgren and Coe invited representatives from five different counties west of the Cascades to a conversation on how they could learn from each other. Lundgren says that by the end the momentum in the room powered conversations beyond it.

“We talk about the mechanics of this a lot, fighting fire from helicopters, and we talk about the landscape,” Lundgren says. “But that belief in humanity matters, because we are the ones who are going to make things happen.”

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