Thursday, June 5, 2014

Fuel for Fires Everywhere

This is one of three wildfire articles, two of which were not printed in the Chinook Observer in June 2014. I've included them as background on the serious and complex land management issue of fire prevention through fuel reduction. Remember:  Be smarter than the fire. 

We have hard-working and well-trained fire departments on the peninsula, but they can’t be everywhere at once when multiple fires start simultaneously, as can happen on a dry Fourth of July holiday. Optimal natural conditions that promote fires include a few days to weeks with no dewfall, and thousands of acres of beachgrass in proximity to dense pine forests. All plants are potential fuel sources during dry weather. Mix in tens of thousand of vacationers aiming to sit around campfires and play with fireworks, and the result is a highly flammable disaster waiting to happen. 

I’m not making this up. It happened here in July 1985. Rain stopped in May; two weeks without dewfall led up to the Fourth of July holiday. The country was bone dry. On July 3rd, Peninsula Fire District 1 crews, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff and State Parks staff fought a fire at Benson Beach in Cape Disappointment State Park, started in driftwood along the beach by a park visitor. The fire burned more than fifty acres south of the campground and was finally snuffed by a borate drop, flown over from Wenatchee.  

The next day, July 4th, a fire started at the north end of the Park, at Beard’s Hollow in the dunes, probably from lighted firecrackers tossed from a motorbike by a preteen. Pushed by a strong southerly wind, the fire raced north towards Seaview.  A fireman told me later the fire moved at more than thirty miles an hour. 

Fire departments mobilized quickly, holding the fire line at Willows Road and NACO West campground. Again, a timely borate drop was mobilized from Wenatchee to snuff the fire.  The DNR District Manager was nearby that day, checking the prior day’s fire near Benson Beach. It was a good bit of serendipity that he was already on site, because he was able to call for a borate flight soon after the fire call went out.  This saved hours of time. But the holiday wasn’t over, and there was no rain in sight.  

Over the next few days, fire crews responded to several dozen escaping dune and yard fires, and dozens of aid calls. Later, Chief Jack McDonald, Peninsula Fire District One, summed up the memorable holiday for the fire department by saying that all children under the age of twelve should be banned from the peninsula for the Fourth of July holiday, along with the matches and firecrackers each one probably had in his or her pockets. 

These bone-dry conditions are not normal for the coast, but they are very normal east of the Cascades. The first change afterwards on the peninsula was to ban open burning from the end of the wet season until rain returned in the fall, and to enforce it. This led to fire departments posting burn ban notices at fire halls, and more awareness of the dangers of dune fires for the public. 

In many western communities, fuel reduction around communities is a common practice. For some reason, fuel reduction in pine stands on the beach was not implemented after the summer of 1985, but it could be. The day may come when there are too many fires for our fire crews to handle, and if your beachside forest is not fire resistant, it could act as a conduit to carry the fire inland to the community’s residential areas. 

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