Small actions can reduce wildfire risks

SEATTLE — As wildfires burn homes and thousands of square miles across the West, fire experts say simple actions like clearing brush around a home or removing pine needles from decks could make the difference in whether a house survives or burns to the ground.

Fire science research over the last decade has produced strategies that can help reduce a home’s chances of igniting, and fire officials are trying to spread the word in fire-prone areas that these little things are hugely important.

Property owners can reduce their risk of wildfire damage by choosing metal roofs over wood shake roofs, for example, keeping flammable materials such as firewood piles away from the home, spacing trees farther apart and by clearing brush from nearby roads.

Increasingly, homeowners and communities are seeing the benefits of such strategies, and they’re joining voluntary programs such as the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities.

More than 1,000 communities in 41 states are recognized as “firewise” because they’re taking steps to prepare their homes from wildfire risks. Still, that represents a small fraction of the estimated 72,000 communities located in wildfire-prone areas.

Experts say that’s because some people don’t fully understand wildfire risks, or they don’t think it will happen to them. Others only live part-time in second homes in fire country, while some are independent and don’t want more regulations or intrusion.

Some governments, however, are incorporating wildfire-prevention strategies into building codes, including the state of California, Washoe County, Nevada, Flagstaff, Arizona, and Yakima County, Washington. But such regulations can be controversial, so voluntary measures are often seen as more effective in getting people involved in preparing for potential wildfires.

In Washington, wildfires so far have destroyed more than 300 homes, scorched nearly 600 square miles and cost more than $160 million in firefighting costs.

Kirsten Cook, who has been helping homeowners evaluate wildfire risks, said there’s a sense of urgency after this year’s devastating fires. More than 50 people showed up at a workshop in Mazama on Saturday, and nearly two dozen households signed up for evaluation.

“It’s about resilience because we live in a wildfire landscape,” said Cook, education and outreach coordinator with the Okanogan Conservation District. “It’s going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.”

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