DNR supports landowners’ fire prevention efforts
By Natalie Johnson
In a Winthrop neighborhood recently threatened by wildfire, Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz on Monday officially launched the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program in Okanogan County.
The program, already launched in Chelan County and soon to be in Spokane, is intended to support landowners’ efforts to reduce their properties’ fire risk through partnerships between the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), fire districts, local groups and community members.
“We’ve been dreaming up and envisioning this program for a very long time,” Franz said, speaking Monday off Larkspur Drive at the Sun Mountain Ranch Club. “It’s very exciting to finally be hitting the ground with it especially in your community, especially how urgent and important this is in your community.”
Wildfire Ready Neighbors is intended to be a community-based campaign, Franz said, with DNR providing support and resources. House Bill 1168, which is working its way through the Legislature, would provide $13 million in funding wildfire reduction strategies in the next biennium if passed, she said.
Franz acknowledged other groups that have already been working on fire resiliency in Okanogan County, especially after the Carlton Complex fires in 2014, including Firewise, Fire Adapted Communities, conservation groups, fire districts and the Okanogan Long Term Recovery group.
“The goal of this is to bring all of it under one campaign,” she said.
Why it matters
It would be an understatement to say that Okanogan County has been hit particularly hard by wildfire in the past several years. Back-to-back summers of devastating wildfires ripped through the county, particularly the Methow Valley, in 2014 and 2015, and most recently, the Cold Springs fire of late last summer killed a 1-year-old child and burned hundreds of thousands of acres, much of it on the Colville Reservation.
Washington state has already experienced 65 reported wildfires this year, Franz said.
“I don’t need to say really why this matters,” she said. “I think probably this community, maybe more so than most communities in Washington state, know why this is absolutely critical.”
Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes, spoke Monday about how the Cold Springs and Inchelium Complex fires burned 200,000 acres and destroyed 80 homes on the Colville Reservation.
“That was an event last year that I know I’m going to remember the rest of my life,” he said. “… Going forward, we need to really prepare and prevent this.”
Wildfires can quickly get out of control and into populated areas, as Okanogan County saw with the Cold Springs Fire, but Franz said she’s seen the benefits of taking basic steps to make a property more resilient to fire, specifically noting what happened in Malden, when 80 percent of the town burned down in 2020.
“Amongst all of that destruction, on every block was a home completely untouched,” she said. “Now most would say, ‘wow that is one lucky homeowner,’ but we all know, and I know our local firefighters know, it’s because that homeowner took action. They knew how to make that home and their family more resilient.”
After Franz and Methow community leaders kicked off the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program in Okanogan County Monday, Sun Mountain Ranch Club resident Karen Mulcahy invited a group to take a short walk to her property for a demonstration of the kind of fire assessment a person could get through the new program.
Mulcahy and her husband, Rick Rottman, had been living in the area for about two years when they were evacuated in 2014 due to the Rising Eagle Road Fire.
“I’d never been so frightened in my life,” Mulcahy said.
In response, Mulcahy began advocating for fire safety and is now the neighborhood Wildfire Ready captain. Rottman became a volunteer for Okanogan County Fire District 6.
Jake Hardt, landowner assistance forester for DNR, walked with the group around Mulcahy and Rottman’s property, pointing out fire danger and ways to combat it. The most important place to start, he said, is with a reflective address sign at a home’s driveway, and adequate access for a fire truck.
“Generally, it’s tidiness and cleanup,” he said.
Tree branches should be pruned well off the ground, and houses should have 5 feet of defensible space — meaning flammable materials and woody plants should be cleared away. Anywhere brush or fallen leaves and pine needles collect is an opportunity for floating embers to take hold.
“It’s really not the firefront that is going to consume your house,” Rottman said. “It’s the embers.”
Okanogan County residents can go to www.wildfireready.com to be prompted to sign up for a fire assessment for their property and to get more information on the program.