As the Cedar Creek Fire approached their house in July, Peter Polson and Shannon Huffman Polson were reasonably confident they’d done their best to protect their home.
Today, the scars from the fire are stark. The ground is charred just 20 feet away, but the house is untouched. The trunks of the large pines near the house are blackened and some of the needles are brown, but most of the crowns look green and healthy. Further from the house, the vegetation burned more severely.
The Polsons moved to the Methow Valley in 2014, just a week after the Carlton Complex Fire roared through. So, as they were planning their home the following year, they knew how important it was to do everything they could to protect it.
They sought out Ken Bevis, a stewardship wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and showed him the hillside where they wanted to build their house.
Bevis compared fires to hurricanes, Peter said. “He said, ‘It’s not if, but when,’” and advised them to prepare so any fire that did come through would burn at a low intensity.
Bevis pointed out the dense forest of fuels — small and large Ponderosa pines — surrounding the homesite. The Polsons removed about eight large pines and two dozen smaller trees near the house. They also removed the lower limbs on mature pines to make them less vulnerable to a ground fire. And they took the opportunity to incorporate wildlife habitat, leaving snags for birds and clumps of trees further from the house as a refuge for deer and other wildlife.
“We respect and want to keep the trees, so that’s why we cut them,” Shannon said. “We didn’t want to live in a moonscape. The fuels reduction prevented that.”
With predictions that the Cedar Creek Fire was heading toward their home, the Polsons were in touch with the firefighters even after they’d evacuated. The firefighters said the Polsons’ preparations had had a decisive impact on the fire and had created a safe zone for them to fight the fire, Peter said.
Advice on fire prevention
Many people understand that they need to do something to make their home more defensible, but often don’t know where to start, said Jake Hardt, a landowner assistance forester with DNR, who helps people assess the risks around their home.
There are several programs that will do a Firewise assessment and advise about the most crucial protections. Some can even help with cost-sharing.
Bevis and Hardt are optimistic that most of the large trees will survive. In fact, Hardt advises people to wait at least until the spring after a fire before worrying about tree mortality, since many trees will thrive. Others may succumb to insects over the next several years, he said.
Wildflowers will flourish next year, but it will take a while for the ground cover that benefits birds, small mammals and snakes to regrow, Bevis said.
The only structure that burned was a 120-year-old settlers’ cabin, down the slope from their house in a mature aspen grove. Bevis predicted that the aspens will be 8 feet high in just a few years. Tender stems and green leaves are already poking out of the blackened dirt.
Bevis advises people to create a landscape that is both fire-resilient and friendly to wildlife. He uses the acronym SLLOPPS — for snags, logs, legacy, openings, patches, piles and shrubs — to describe a healthy, diverse landscape with enough complexity to support a variety of wildlife.
In addition to thinning vegetation, the Polsons designed their house to be as impervious to fire as possible. They chose fire-resistant siding instead of wood shingles.
“The key is hardening a house against embers. It’s embers — not flames, usually — that burn a house,” Hardt said. A perimeter of rocks or gravel is key, he said.
Although the Polsons are upbeat and grateful today, they acknowledge that it was traumatic being evacuated with their young sons. “I think it’s going to take a long time to process this,” Shannon said, gesturing toward burned hillsides surrounding their property.
‘We took it very seriously. It was a major project,” Shannon said. “It’s a responsibility that comes with the choice to live here.”
Resources for a fire-adapted landscape
For more information, contact Jake Hardt at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ken Bevis at email@example.com.
Resources are available at www.dnr.wa.gov/cost-share.
Fire-resistant plants: https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/pnw590.
Wildlife Friendly Fuels Reduction: woodlandfishandwildlife.com (includes info on SLLOPPS recommendations).
Information and toolkits about living with fire: Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network are at www.fireadaptedwashington.org and Firewise.org.