Linda Vane stoops down to pull out a handful of weeds at the edge of a gravel road. The weeds are dry and crumble in her hands. The soil beneath them is dry as well.
"I'm nervous this year," said Vane, who assesses wildfire risk in her duties with the forestry program at the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks.
"Homeowners are telling me their plants are drier than they have ever seen them, soil that normally has some moisture is completely dry, tree limbs that normally stand up and have a lot of perkiness are drooping."
Wildfires are a perennial concern is Central and Eastern Washington. But a number of things usually work in Western Washington's favor, according to Vane – climate, topography, and an abundance of firefighting resources mean that wildfires typically are well-controlled.
“In a year like this year, the concern is that may not be enough, that with windy conditions, extremely dry vegetation, and very dry air, we could have a situation where a fire gets out of hand,” she said.
Already, the Seattle area has had its driest May-June period ever. Federal meteorologists say there has been no widespread rainfall since early April, and the forecast into fall is drier and hotter than average.
Vane’s job is to help communities in King County prepare for the possibility of wildfires. And through a program called Firewise, sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association, she teaches people what they can do to make their homes more fire resistant.
There is a long checklist of things to do, starting with:
- Creating a survivable space at least 30 feet from your home.
- Keeping roofs and gutters clear.
- Moving firewood away from the house.
- Pruning back trees and shrubs.
“If you have shrubs growing over your windows, lower them so in the event that that shrub catches fire, it doesn’t cause your windows to shatter and let burning embers blow into the home," Vane said.
The tiny community of Lake Alice, at the base of the Cascades, has been following the Firewise guidelines. Resident Richard Werlein asked the county for help because of the particular risk that a wildfire could present.
“Living in a community that is isolated from the rest of the county where there is one road in and one road out, we are keenly aware of the fact that should a fire start at the bottom of the hill we are pretty trapped,” he said.
Werlein has taken some steps to make his home more fire safe. For example, he’s just cleared the brush from around his wooden deck and replaced it with gravel. But looking around his property, he sees more things to do.
“These trees are way too close to the house. And we are debating whether to cut them down, right down,” he said.
Linda Vane says homeowners shouldn’t feel intimated by all of the Firewise recommendations. Even changing one thing, she says, can reduce the risk of wildfires.
For more information on the Firewise guidelines, click here.
King County offers homeowners and communities free wildfire assessments. More information here.