Preparedness could help town survive a disaster
By Ann McCreary
When it comes to wildfires, Winthrop has dodged the bullet so far, but a local resident is suggesting that town leaders do more to prepare for a time when the town may not be so fortunate.
“We’ve been really lucky in our community,” Winthrop resident Nancy Farr told the Town Council last week. “We aren’t prepared as homeowners, business people and as a community … to survive intact and to recover well from wildfire.”
Farr spoke at the Feb. 7 Winthrop Town Council meeting to urge the council to consider designating Winthrop as a “Fire-Adapted Community,” a process that she said would help the town and its residents address the reality of living in a fire-prone area.
“We live in a very high-risk environment,” Farr said. “The fire season has gotten longer, with increasingly frequent, high-intensity winds, dry vegetation and high temperatures. All these conditions are increasing our risk of serious wildfire.”
She said that on at least a couple of occasions in recent years — including the 2014 Rising Eagle Road Fire — Winthrop has been threatened by wildfire. Farr said she became concerned about Winthrop’s wildfire preparedness after moving from a farm outside town to a house within Winthrop town limits in 2016.
She said she began researching community preparedness “because of my level of concern … and the relative lack of activity for fire preparedness. We need to adopt the attitude that fire is going to come, and we need to take responsibility. The good news is, we as a community don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Farr urged the council to take three steps toward becoming better-prepared as a community. First, she suggested that Winthrop become part of a nationwide network of Fire-Adapted Communities within the next five years. She also suggested establishing a volunteer committee of citizens and local fire experts to focus on wildfire preparedness. And she recommended that Winthrop consider joining the Okanogan Conservation District so that town residents can receive services offered by the district, such as Firewise property assessments.
A Fire-Adapted Community is “not so much a status as a concept,” said Kirsten Cook, community outreach director for the Okanogan Conservation District. Becoming a Fire-Adapted Community means “the community has acknowledged the risk of wildfire and is taking action to be better prepared both before, during and after,” Cook said.
The concept of Fire-Adapted Communities is one of the tenants of a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy. According to the website, fireadapted.org, a Fire-Adapted Community involves citizens in “collaboratively planning and taking action to safely coexist with wildland fire.” That includes taking actions related to infrastructure, buildings, landscaping and the surrounding ecosystem that are specific to each community’s needs.
Several neighborhoods and residential developments in the Methow Valley have achieved designation as “Firewise” communities in recent years. Firewise designation is a step-by-step process with numerous requirements that must be completed. The focus of Firewise is centered on homes and neighborhoods, while the concept of Fire-Adapted Communities is broader, Cook said.
“It involves individual homeowners, the business community, landowners, elected officials and first responders. There is a role for everybody in taking action to make the community as a whole more resilient … rather than leaving it to the fire people,” Cook said.
Fire-Adapted Communities can tap into a nationwide network of other communities and organizations to find support and information about tools like the Firewise program to work toward better wildfire preparedness, Cook said.
Farr suggested that the council appoint a committee of citizens and fire experts to research what other communities have done to prepare for wildfire, to organize educational events and activities such as fuels-reduction projects, and to identify funding sources to assist in fire preparation.
Annexing into the Okanogan Conservation District would make Winthrop residents and business owners eligible to receive wildfire-related services, including Firewise consultations, that are available to unincorporated areas served by the district. Joining the district requires a vote of the Town Council and a resolution by the state Conservation Commission, said Craig Nelson, Okanogan Conservation District manager.
If the town were annexed into the district, property owners in Winthrop would be assessed $2.65 per parcel and 5 cents per acre, Nelson said. Tax exemptions provided by the county to low-income people and senior citizens would apply, he said.
Julie Muyllaert, a Winthrop business owner, told council members that she supports Farr’s suggestions, A member of the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery group, which was formed in the wake of the 2014 Carlton Complex wildfire, Muyllaert said preparation could help local businesses survive future wildfire disasters like Carlton Complex.
“We were lucky in Winthrop. Some Twisp businesses that were on the edge went out of business. A fire can be a decisive event that can shutter the doors,” Muyllaert said.
Joining the national network of Fire-Adapted Communities “is a smart thing for us to do to be better prepared as a community,” Muyllaert said. “It has to be a comprehensive and sustained effort. All that needs to happen is for the fire to start up valley from Winthrop.”
Farr said her concerns about the wildfire threat to Winthrop grew as she researched risks. Winthrop is in the wildland-urban interface, even if it is not on the edge of a forest. Much of the area consumed in the Carlton Complex Fire was shrub-steppe land, she said.
“Forests are not our problem here. Our big problem is shrub-steppe and lack of preparedness,” Farr said. She said she decided to start with an appeal to the Winthrop council for action “as a way to launch a community-wide effort.”
Council members said they wanted more time to consider Farr’s suggestions before taking action, and decided to include the topic on the agenda of the next council meeting, scheduled for Feb. 21.