Preparing for fire in Washington


How communities are working to increase their resilience in the face of fire.

Written and Photographed by Mary Sutton Carruthers, Tapash Collaborative Coordinator and Reese Lolley, Eastern WA Forests Program Director

We are in the midst of what is now the largest wildfire season on record in Washington with forecasts of dry lightning potentially igniting new fires. All corners of our state are burning or have burned this summer. Most residents have felt the effects of smoke and many are reeling from the destruction of personal property, and most devastating of all is the tragic injury and loss of life of those bravely protecting what we value. Washingtonians are realizing that there is a collective and individual responsibility to increase the resiliency of our communities, forests, grasslands, and our ability to proactively live with wildfire.

This type of disaster resilience is built at the community scale and with that in mind, The Nature Conservancy and its partners has supported the establishment of Fire Adapted Communities both regionally and nationally. From a homeowner clearing out brush around their house and making exterior improvements to resist fire, to county residents and organizations coming together to create a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, to county governments and builders working together to make homes safer and less likely to burn, to businesses developing disaster resilience plans, to state, federal, and private organizations working together to achieve landscape scale forest restoration, Fire Adapted Communities assume responsibility for living in a wildfire prone landscape by taking pro-active steps towards increasing resiliency before, during, and after a fire. While firefighters have an immensely important and sometimes dangerous role, individuals and communities can take responsibly and make investments before fires that make wildfire response safer and more effective.

Fire Adapted Communities also incorporate many existing programs to help residents better prepare for wildfire including the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities program and the International Association of Fire Chiefs Ready, Set, Go! program.

The Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (WAFAC) was launched earlier this year and provides member communities with resources to engage with other WAFAC participants so that they can share information, resources and lessons learned. Learning networks connect and support people and organizations that are leaders in their communities, passionate problem solvers and want to share what makes a difference with the goal of accelerating existing and developing new approaches to preparing before, during and after wildfire. Currently, the communities in Washington include Okanogan, Chelan- Leavenworth, Yakima, Kittitas, San Juan, and Lincoln counties, as well as the Flowery Trails Community Association in Stevens County and the Seattle City Light-Skagit Hydroelectric Project in Whatcom County. These communities are educating residents on what they can do to prepare for the inevitable wildfire. They are reaching out to builders, home owners associations, county commissioners, businesses, and insurance companies to spark the discussion about how to collaborate to increase resiliency, and they are engaging landowners over best management practices following wildfires.

This year, we grieve for the lives lost in the act of protecting us from wildfires. We are in shock that north central Washington is leading again with an unprecedented amount of wildfire. Fire has touched us all, from the Idaho border to shrub-steppe lands around Moses Coulee to the San Juan’s to the outskirts of the Hoh Rainforest, and in many places and communities in-between. The importance of working to make these great places and landscapes more resilient and neighboring communities safer have never been more apparent. The Nature Conservancy is leading these efforts by supporting Fire Learning Network, Fire Adapted Communities, Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and through their membership in forest collaboratives working to increase the pace and scale of large watershed restoration, and through their support of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

While current trends and climate science indicate that wildfire season is lengthening and acres burned will continue to grow in orders of magnitude compared to last century, there are actions we can take to increase our resilience and reduce the costs to people and nature living in a landscape that is on fire. Let’s not wait this time. Read more about two solutions we believe can provide relief from the worst of today’s megafires: through funding & improving management.