Conservation District helps county’s landowners plan ahead
Almost a decade after the Carlton Complex Fire shocked the Methow Valley with its size and speed, megafires have become a summer reality.
Wildfire is inevitable, but with proper planning and preparation, its impact on lives, homes and land can be limited.
Thinking ahead is critical for anyone living in fire country, said Eli Loftis, the Okanogan Conservation District (OCD) Wildfire Resiliency & Air Quality Lead. “If you begin to think about wildfire resiliency when there is an orange glow on the horizon and ash is falling in your yard, it is too late,” said Loftis. “That is not a journey that needs to be started when you’re under the gun.”
To help people prepare, OCD offers wildfire risk assessments at no charge throughout the valley, except in the Town of Twisp, which has not chosen to join the district. Basic services include assessments of existing houses and pre-construction site visits. Assessments can be useful for landowners who aren’t sure where to start and also for those who’ve already taken some steps and would like confirmation that they’re on the right path, said Loftis.
Pre-construction site visits are ideal, Loftis said. “We would much rather inspect before there’s even a building there,” he said. “Very often, when it comes to securing structures, where you put it is as important as what you build it out of.”
OCD fire planners can help landowners or would-be owners evaluate a given piece of property and choose a defensible building site.
This is a good time to request an assessment, said Loftis; OCD staff currently have capacity to schedule site visits fairly quickly. In addition, the district has funding from FEMA to support home-hardening actions in certain parts of the county this year, he said.
In the Methow, eligible areas are the Sun Mountain Ranch Club and private property in the Twisp Watershed, between the Town of Twisp and the national forest boundary. Once a property in one of those areas has been assessed, the owner may be eligible for cost-share funding to implement the district’s recommendations. OCD is also working on developing another cost-share program, using state funds.
Look at your land
The first step in evaluating your own property for wildfire readiness, says Loftis, is to “make sure that you’re facing the right way. Very often folks look from their home out” toward the land around the house. Loftis encourages owners to “look from the edge of your property in, because that’s how fire’s going to come, most likely. Be thinking about ‘What can I do in order to remove the highest-risk fuels from the most valuable parts of my property?’”
Loftis also encourages landowners to think in terms of the ignition zone that surrounds any structure and extends as far as 200 feet. Direct flame, embers and radiant heat all have potential to cause ignition. Zone 1, within 5 feet of the structure, is “extremely consequential,” said Loftis.
Steps like covering vents and removing fuels from that zone are “paramount,” he said, and help keep embers from entering the house or sparking combustion. Keeping flames at least 5 feet from your house helps prevent the building’s surface temperature from rising so high that glass cracks and building materials begin to burn.
“That first 5 feet around your home is the most vital. It is your first and last line of defense. If you’re looking from it, out, into the trees, you’re ignoring the most important and in many cases the easiest action items to reduce risk,” Loftis said.
Zone 2, 5 to 30 feet from a structure, is “extremely important,” said Loftis, and Zone 3, extending from 30 feet to 100-200 feet from the structure, is “very important.” The width of Zone 3 depends on terrain — on a sloped site, for instance, Zone 3 may be wider on the downhill side of a structure. Treating zones 2 and 3 — by pruning, removing debris and ensuring adequate spacing between plants — will help keep fire from spreading and reaching structures.
Fire prevention activities are intended to reduce risk and increase resilience, and while they’re effective, there’s no certainty that all damage will be averted. “Every wildfire is different,” said Loftis. “Every property is different when it comes to how it will experience a wildfire.”
“You may still have damage,” he said, but taking action will increase the likelihood that “there’s still going to be a house there when you come back.”
Planning and preparing for fire is year-round work, said Loftis. “Winter is the best time to think about what you’re going to be doing in the spring,” he said. “When it is fire season, it’s the best time to think about ‘What do I need to do day-to-day to protect my home?’ and ‘What can I do in the fall, when things have cooled down a little bit, to make sure that I don’t have to do a lot of extra work in the spring?’”
Once a home has been prepared for fire, residents may want to work together to get their community ready. Neighbors are likely to notice when a landowner has taken steps such as clearing vegetation and installing a gravel barrier around a house, Loftis said.
“If you do it right and [it’s] esthetically pleasing, very often … that’s how trends develop, and that’s how you get folks interested in action,” he said.
Working with neighbors to prepare for fire can save lives as well as property, said Loftis, noting that a community phone tree was instrumental in alerting Chiliwist residents to the Carlton Complex fire in 2014.
“There are multiple residents who have told me personally, that if they had not had that kind of information, they would have died,” he said.
Scheduling an assessment
There are two ways to schedule a risk assessment with the Okanogan Conservation District (OCD), according to Wildfire Resiliency & Air Quality Lead Eli Loftis. On the OCD web site, www.okanogancd.org, hover over “Programs and Services,” click “Wildfire,” and then click “Request Risk Assessment.” Once you’ve submitted the request form, Loftis or Wildfire Resiliency & Recovery Planner Dylan Streeter will contact you in a day or two to schedule a site visit.
Assessments take one to two hours. Landowners don’t need to be present, said Loftis, but an on-site dialog can help planners better understand the owner’s needs, and provide an opportunity to convey information first-hand. In particular, he said, OCD aims to help landowners feel comfortable with the landscape they inhabit and the inevitability of change.
Fire planners also help people understand that they are part of a land community, and their actions affect the people and places around them as well as their own property.
Following the site visit, OCD will provide an assessment with recommendations. Landowners can often complete recommended actions on their own; OCD can recommend contractors if needed. Loftis emphasized that OCD has no regulatory authority, and there’s no obligation to follow the district’s recommendations.
As an alternative, you can request an assessment through the Washington Department of Natural Resources Wildfire Ready Neighbors program; call 1-877-WA-READY or email WildfireReady@dnr.wa.gov. Find more information about the program at https://wildfireready.dnr.wa.gov.
Several other local organizations can help you prepare for wildfire. For more information and resources, visit:
• Fire-Adapted Methow Valley, www.fireadaptedmethow.org.
• Methow Ready, an Aero Methow Rescue Service program, www.methowready.org.
• The Methow Conservancy, https://methowconservancy.org/discover/fire-prep-recovery.