2012 Buckhorn Fire at Gold Creek. File photo by Sue Misao

2012 Buckhorn Fire at Gold Creek. File photo by Sue Misao


Rather than spending money to fight extreme wildfires like the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, we’d do better to create “fire-adapted” communities in fire-prone areas like the Methow Valley, according to Peter Morrison of Pacific Biodiversity Institute (PBI) in Winthrop.

“We spend billions of dollars a year in our attempts to suppress wildfires. A lot of it is futile,” said Morrison, executive director of PBI.

“The solution, and a number of fire ecologists are calling it this, is creating fire-adapted communities,” said Morrison, who has a background in forest ecology and fire history.

Morrison recently released a report on the wildfire in Yarnell and Glen Ilah, Ariz., which claimed the lives of 19 firefighters, destroyed more than 100 homes and scorched 8,300 acres last month. PBI has conducted numerous studies of wildfires over the past decade to help guide public policy and practices related to wildfire management.

PBI’s recently released study points out a lack of preparedness for wildfire in the devastated communities, and questions the wisdom of sending a crew of hotshot firefighters into “extremely hazardous situations where they are risking their lives to protect property.”

In an interview this week, Morrison said the extreme fires and loss of property and life in Arizona could be repeated in communities throughout the West, including the Methow Valley.

The communities of Yarnell and Glen Ilah were not fire-safe prior to the wildfire, and are typical of many similar situations in the country, and particularly the West, Morrison and co-author George Wooten wrote in their study: “Communities that exist in fire environments like Yarnell Hill will always be at significant risk to wildfire, just as homes that are built in a river’s floodplain are at risk of periodic flooding.”


Fire-safe homes survive

Using satellite images and mapping software, Morrison and Wooten assessed homes and other structures in the fire area and found that prior to the fire, 85 percent of the buildings had direct contact with shrubs and trees that act as fuel. Only about 63 of the 569 structures analyzed had a buffer zone free of vegetation to protect them from fire.

Following the fire, the researchers obtained data on the structures that burned. They found that 95 percent of the fire-safe homes (with buffers around them) survived, it while about 30 percent of the non-fire safe structures that PBI identified were destroyed.

“The contrast between these two structure survival rates is substantial and illustrates that simple and inexpensive measures like keeping flammable vegetation away from homes can significantly increase the odds of a home surviving a wildfire,” the researchers said.

Extreme fires in areas like Yarnell are not unusual, but are actually normal, Morrison said.

“Ecosystems of the West are fire-adapted. The Methow Valley is a good example,” he said. “The Yarnell hills normally burn every 30-50 years, sometimes up to 100 years, in fires just like the one that happened. There wasn’t anything abnormal about the fire and the ecosystem actually needs that. It’s designed around that. What’s unusual is we have a whole bunch of homes there now. The situation that happened in Yarnell could repeat itself in most communities throughout the West, including our community.”

The fact that the Yarnell Hill Fire grew out of control was “predictable,” the study said. “The interior chaparral shrub lands that it burned through are notorious for high intensity wildfire. There was extreme fire weather during the fire coupled with very dry vegetation as a result of long-term drought, high temperatures, intense sunshine and persistent winds … Weather events like this are becoming more common because of global climate change.”


File photo by Sue Misao

File photo by Sue Misao

Common misperceptions

These factors should have been given greater consideration before deploying the hotshot crew to fight the fire, PBI researchers said.

“Tragically, the hotshot crew did not have a chance once the fire exploded. The explosion of this fire, given the extremely hot weather and dense, dry brush and grass was entirely predictable. These natural forces are much, much stronger than anything we have to fight them,” the report said.

“Wildfires can quickly develop into incredibly intense forces of nature,” Morrison said. “Once they get really big it’s really hard to have any effect on them.”

Morrison said his decision to conduct the analysis of the Yarnell Hill Fire was prompted partly by “misperceptions about wildfire” that he was seeing in reports on the event. In particular, he said, many people “equate wildfire with forest fires … that’s not right.”

PBI’s study cites data from the National Fire Information Center (NFIC) showing that 78 percent of fires over the past 20 years occurred on private property or state-managed lands, not on national forests. A fire study conducted by PBI in 2001 found that all of the largest fires (over 50,000 acres) burned in chaparral, shrub lands and grasslands, not in forests.

In the Methow Valley, many homes are in shrub-steppe, which is “a really risky fire environment,” Morrison said. “Most of our shrub-steppe hasn’t burned in 50 years or more.”

Misconceptions about wildfires leads to misguided public policy and misspent money, Morrison said.

In the wake of the Yarnell Hill Fire – which occurred primarily on private property and state land – Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake introduced a bill aimed at thinning trees and vegetation in national forests, Morrison said.

“The nearest national forest [to Yarnell] was 11 miles away,” Morrison said. Statistics from the NFIC show that only 12 percent of fires are in national forests, he said.

“How do we spend our tax money? This is why those numbers matter. Are we going to spend it in a smart way or a dumb way? Putting a whole bunch of money into thinning in the back country in national forest is a dumb way in terms of doing society any good,” Morrison said.

“The focus of national wildfire policy should shift from fire suppression to fire adaptation, rather than spending billions of dollars every year trying to fight wildfires – often with little success,” the PBI researchers said. “There should be more effort into the initial attack (when firefighters can be more effective) and firefighters need to stand down once the wildfires get to be very hard to control.”

“Ninety percent of all wildfires get put out or at least contained within the first 24 hours,” Morrison said.

Rather than fighting fires, the study concluded, “a much wiser use of our tax dollars would be to use this money to help homeowners and communities create fire-adapted homes and defensible spaces.”


Wildfire plan identifies hot spots, prevention techniques


In the past 30 years, 170,000 acres in Okanogan County have burned, and the majority of the almost 3,000 ignitions were caused by lightning strikes.

These figures, risk assessments and recommendations for protection are contained in the county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, now in the final stages of revision. The county is working with a consultant on the update of its 2009 plan.

The plan assesses historical fire regimes and patterns in forested areas and those that have been developed for residential use or agriculture. It also looks at the condition of forests and fuels throughout the county to forecast serious fires and recommend interventions and preparedness.

Because it is somewhat protected by extensive development and conversion of native fuels to pasture and other agricultural uses, Winthrop has a moderate risk of a large wildland fire, according to the researchers’ analysis.

However, there is a higher potential for fires connected with the density of recreation and other human activities near rivers and at Pearrygin Lake State Park, primarily from campfires, barbecues and all-terrain vehicles. Wooden buildings and sidewalks may also increase risks in Winthrop.

Twisp and Carlton also benefit from some protection because the continuity of fuels along the river valley is broken by alfalfa fields, which help slow the spread of fire, according to the plan. Most of the fire risk in this area is on the mid- and upper slopes and in developed drainages. Libby Creek and Texas Creek were identified as potential “hot spots.”

Many areas in the Methow Valley are overgrown with vegetation and have become 'hot spots' for potential wildfire.

Many areas in the Methow Valley are overgrown with vegetation and have become ‘hot spots’ for potential wildfire. Photo by Sue Misao

Older agricultural areas around French Creek, Gold Creek and Black Canyon have become overgrown and are primed for large fires because of excessive fuels.

Nearly all of the upper Methow River valley, including Mazama, Twisp River, Wolf Creek and Edelweiss have a very high risk of a damaging wildfire. Exacerbating the risk is the fact that some bridges to residential developments may not support fire-suppression equipment.

Lost River Road was singled out as particularly vulnerable because subdivisions there are typically completely surrounded by thick stands of timber and underbrush and very few structures have defensible space – a 30-foot buffer around buildings with sparse, well-irrigated vegetation.

Moreover, Lost River Road needs fuels treatments to be a safe evacuation route and it is highly probable that several homes in the area would be lost in a wildfire, according to the researchers.

Homes in wooded uplands tend to be less accessible to firefighters and are susceptible to fire as it spreads upslope. Even rivers do not offer complete protection, as riparian vegetation dries out in late summer, threatening homes near the water’s edge, according to the plan.

In addition to assessing fuels, the plan looks at road access, water supply and fire protection. Okanogan County Fire District No. 6, which covers the Methow, is the largest fire district in the county, covering approximately 350 square miles and a population of 4,000, according to the plan. The area covered by the district also has the highest rate of new construction in the county, largely in the wildland-urban interface, the area of greatest concern to fire managers.

The Wildfire Protection plan emphasizes prevention, saying, “The best possible mitigation activity for all residents in the Winthrop, Twisp, Mazama, and Lower Methow communities is to construct and maintain a defensible space.”

Recommended interventions include mowing, thinning undergrowth and pruning larger trees. The plan also recommends an in-depth educational outreach program because of the many homeowners from out of the area.

A committee working on the plan with the Okanogan County Department of Emergency Management expects to have a final draft ready for public comment in August. Once it is approved by the county, the plan goes to the state and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for their approval.