A family and their home were saved by being prepared
By Guy Gifford
It was Sunday night, Sept. 6, at about 10 p.m. Kirsten Cook, her husband and two of their friends were stargazing when one of the friends saw and pointed out some “cool puffy clouds.”
When Cook looked over at what her friend was talking about, she quickly realized what they were seeing.
“Those aren’t clouds,” she said. “That’s a smoke column.”
The group was witnessing the start of what would eventually be called the Cold Springs Fire. Little did they know, this fire would soon put to the test the Firewise work Cook and her husband had done to protect their home.
Considering the windy conditions and the proximity of the fire, they quickly made the decision to evacuate.
Their adrenaline was pumping, but they did their best to stay calm and rely on the preparations they had made for such an event. Moving quickly, they went first for their emergency kits, which contained water and food, among other supplies. Their camping gear was already in the car. Then they grabbed their emergency checklist and carefully worked through each item.
“The list gave me focus in a tense situation and helped us get everything we needed to evacuate quickly,” Cook said, recalling the intensity of the moment.
They were on their way out of the house when they were notified on their cell phone by the Okanogan County alert system that their area had just been put on a level 2 evacuation notice. They got in their cars and drove to the Okanogan County Fairgrounds to set up camp and wait out the fire.
The next day, they watched the fire burn over Jackass Butte, which they knew wasn’t far from their house. Their hearts sank as they realized the fire must have burned through their property to get there. Still not knowing if their home had survived, they decided to drive to Seattle and stay with friends while they waited out the fire and avoided the smoke.
Preparing for disaster
It wasn’t until the following Tuesday that they heard from a friend who was still in the area. Their home had survived with minimal damage. However, all of the outbuildings and their contents had been lost.
So, what did Cook and her husband do ahead of time to be prepared for this disaster?
Early in Cook’s career, she worked as a wildland firefighter. This gave her some critical insight into the destruction wildfire can wreak and also laid the groundwork for her to eventually become the community outreach director for the Okanogan Conservation District. In this position, she regularly works with the Firewise USA program, Washington Fire Adapted Communities, as well as one-on-one with the public to encourage residents to implement practices that protect homes from wildfire.
In 2007, Cook and her husband bought a piece of property in Okanogan County with the goal of someday building their dream home on it. It took a few years, but they broke ground on the homesite in 2013 and finished construction a year later.
As an ecologist, she knew the ground this house sat on was a fire-adapted ecosystem. Prior to European settlement, this area likely would have burned once per decade. Records show the most recent burn on the site was in 1986, 34 years ago. With the knowledge that fire was a natural and frequently occurring event for her home site, she knew she had to take steps to minimize the potential impacts of a wildfire on their home.
“It wasn’t a question of if a wildfire will burn my property, but when will it burn my property,” Cook said.
Cook followed a key Firewise principal: She focused her efforts on the Home Ignition Zone. This principle breaks up the area around a home into three zones, with each zone requiring unique fire-prevention work.
Zone 1, or the immediate zone, extends 5 feet from the home in all directions, including the deck and attachments. The goal for this area is to ensure burning embers landing near the home will not ignite a fire. Cook did some vital work in this zone, even while the house was being built. They used stucco for siding material, installed a metal roof, and used concrete for the porch instead of wood. Metal screens with 1/8-inch squares, which are better at blocking embers, were used on the porch and all vents. On the ground, she used gravel to create a 6-foot, vegetation-free buffer around the entire house.
In the next zone, the intermediate zone, which covers the area 5 to 30 feet from the house, the primary goal is to provide the fire with little, or nothing, to burn.
Cook’s homesite has limited water availability, so rather than trying to keep things green, they chose to remove all shrubs and to mow down all the native grasses and wildflowers when they went dormant, usually around the Fourth of July. When the Cold Springs Fire came through, there was some low-intensity burning in this area, but the lack of vegetation ensured there wasn’t enough radiant heat to ignite the home itself.
In the extended zone, 30-plus feet from the home, the aim is not to eliminate fire but instead to reduce fire intensity. This is where forest management comes into play. The vegetation in the extended zone around Cook’s home was typical for the area: native bunch grasses, sagebrush, and ponderosa pine trees. They worked to remove any highly flammable shrubs like bitterbrush, mowed native grasses and forbs after they went dormant in July, and thinned and pruned trees to reduce the fuel load and potential fuel ladders. They left some deciduous native shrubs like serviceberry, only removing dead branches as needed.
The Cold Springs Fire started on Sept. 6 at 9:45 p.m. near Omak, and went on to burn 189,923 acres, killing a 1-year-old child and severely burning his parents. In addition, 78 primary residences and 60 secondary buildings were lost or damage by the wildfire. The aggregate effects of all Cook’s work meant a relatively unscathed home to return to after the fire was over. The fact that they didn’t hesitate to evacuate when the time came meant they could return home unscathed as well.
When they got back to the house, she saw a few notable things.
The first was that during the fire the wind had piled burning material in front of their metal front door. Cook is certain if they had chosen a wooden door, their home would have easily ignited from this.
Another observation was that, although there was a good deal of fine ash on her screened-in porch, there was no evidence of any embers getting through. In her attic, she found more fine ash blown in through the vents and one or two small black dots that may have been a burning ember, but the 1/8-inch screen had largely done its job.
Despite the fact that their fire-proofing work certainly saved their home, there are a couple of things Cook says she would have done differently. For one, the power pole for their generator, which they had not taken steps to protect, had clearly burned, so they plan on doing some landscaping and putting metal around the new pole when it is installed.
Even the smallest details matter. The outbuilding that stored their generator was built with a metal roof and fiber cement siding, but the door was not properly shutting, so they had been using a bungee cord to keep it closed. She believes the fire melted the bungee cord and the wind blew the door open allowing embers in. The building burned down and took the large generator with it. Fixing the door had been on their to-do list.
One thing they’ll add to their checklist is latching the windows. When they evacuated their home, their windows were shut but not latched, which meant coming home to a layer of fine ash covering the inside of their home.
Cook is currently working with her insurance company on her claims for the outbuildings burning down as well as the materials in them.
Creating a list of all items lost by sifting sift through the rubble is difficult, if not impossible. Insurance companies will not compensate for “miscellaneous” lost items.
Fortunately, in 2015, Cook had video recorded the contents of her outbuilding and home when she was concerned about the Okanogan Complex wildfires. This video has been critical in helping them make insurance claims, although Cook is regretting not getting footage of the contents of all the drawers and inside the toolboxes.
This video was stored on her laptop and backed up on a thumb drive. Both of these items were on their evacuation checklist to take with them.
Having now seen her home go through a wildfire firsthand, Cook has a couple of take-home messages for other folks who live in high-risk areas:
• Pay attention to local weather and be able to identify the signs for high wildfire potential.
• Do not wait to evacuate. If you think there is potential of fire burning your property, leave before the fire arrives.
• Have an evacuation plan and a checklist. This will help you stay focused and ensure you grab everything you need.
• Sign up for local county emergency alerts.
• Don’t underestimate the ability of Firewise principles to protect your home.
• Have a good list, or at least a video, of everything you own. This includes looking in every drawer, toolbox, or other container with valuables inside.
Remember — our lives are more important than our things!
Having prepared for this disaster ahead of time is helping Cook and her husband get back to normal much more quickly than if they had done nothing. In hindsight, these efforts were a small investment with a huge return.
Guy Gifford is DNR’s Landowner Assistance Forester & Fire Prevention and Firewise Coordinator for the Northeast Region. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For wildfire risk assessments, contact Mindy Untalan at email@example.com.