Fire Strong Workshops prepare Okanogan, Chelan county residents for wildfire season

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We’re just a few days into spring and Washington firefighters have responded to 50 wildfires in the state, with 49 of the fires west of the Cascades. Unseasonably low humidity, record-breaking March temperatures and high winds have created conditions that are normally seen in late August during Western Washington’s traditionally peak wildfire season. Weather forecasters anticipate that lower temperatures and higher humidity will arrive soon, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) climate outlook for spring 2019 forecasts a warmer and drier than normal April and May.

In response to the NOAA report, Whatcom County Fire District 1 Chief Mel Blankers told the Bellingham Herald:

It makes me nervous. Things are already dry. We had that long cold snap that lasted so long with the cold winds, and it dried everything out. Even now, we’re seeing people cleaning up things and fires getting out of control.

As Western states and counties brace for what could be another historically bad fire season, some are taking swift, bold action to mitigate against wildfire damage. California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week declared a state of emergency, thus streamlining regulatory requirements to fast track “nearly three dozen local forest management projects to protect communities from deadly wildfires that have decimated regions up and down the state.” The 35 projects include installing fuel breaks, prescribed burns and removing vegetation to slow or stop wildfires.

In Washington state, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has requested the state legislature to fund a $55 million wildfire and forest health package that would include hiring 30 permanent firefighters, a $17 million investment in forest health projects and ramping up coordination with private forestland owners and federal agencies to reduce wildfire threats.

And in anticipation of the warmer, drier weather in Okanogan County, the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group is hosting a series of Fire Strong Workshops to help Okanogan County-area residents, businesses, property owners and agencies better prepare for wildfire threats. The Fire Strong Workshops will focus on fire resiliency by helping communities prepare for future disasters.

Said Pateros Mayor and Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group Executive Director Carlene Anders:

It’s something we all have to do. It is a different day and age now. All these years of firefighting, I’ve never seen anything like what has happened in recent years. Fuel breaks, controlled burns, homeowner responsibility, we’ve just got to hit it from all angles.

The Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group formed after back-to-back blazes in 2014 and 2015 scorched hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed more than 870 buildings and took the lives of three firefighters. In 2014, the Carlton Complex Fire burned more than 256,000 acres and caused an estimated $98 million in damages. In 2015, the Chelan Complex and Okanogan Complex fires burned a combined 400,000 acres and cost $44.5 million to fight.

In addition to providing practical information on safeguarding property and mitigating against wildfire damage, the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group also has dedicated itself to helping wildfire victims rebuild their homes, help with cleanup efforts and collecting stories from people impacted by the 2014 and 2015 wildfires. The Group anticipates that the rebuild and cleanup projects will be completed by summer 2019.

“These Fire Strong Workshops are geared toward working toward the future while learning from the past,” Anders said. “2018 was a record year for wildfires in Washington state. Wildfires are definitely not going away, and we’ve got to do our best to prevent devastating damage.”

All Fire Strong Workshops will be from 10 am to 7 pm at the following locations and dates:

  • April 16th, Tonasket Community Cultural Center
  • April 17th, Okanogan County Fair Agriplex Building
  • April 30th, Nespelem Community Center
  • May 1st, Methow Valley Community Center in Twisp

The Fire Strong Workshops are happening at the same time county, state and federal agencies have begun efforts to prepare for summer wildfire season. Just this week, the US Forest Service announced plans to treat a portion of 75,000 acres within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest to prevent future ruinous blazes. The Forest Service hopes to begin removing grasses, brush and dry vegetation that could become fuel for wildfires a year from now.

In Chelan County, the county is working with residents, local fire districts, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and the United States Forest Service to develop the Chelan County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan focuses on wildfire prevention, hazard mitigation and community preparedness. The Chelan Community Wildfire Protection Plan is currently in draft form. The community comments on the draft the plan will be accepted through March 26th. Comments can be submitted via email to tucker@nmi2.comor online here.