A firefighting helicopter carries a bucket of water from a nearby river to the Bolt Creek Fire on Saturday, Sep. 10, 2022, on U.S. 2 near Index, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A firefighting helicopter carries a bucket of water from a nearby river to the Bolt Creek Fire on Saturday, Sep. 10, 2022, on U.S. 2 near Index, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

After Bolt Creek, Western WA gears up for another fire season — in April

Prescribed burns and community meetings are signs of local firefighters gearing up, already, for what could be another smoky summer.

EVERETT — If last fall was any indication, the wildfire risk in Snohomish County is increasing and agencies across the region are preparing for another active season.

The 14,000-acre Bolt Creek Fire served as a reminder that dangerous, unpredictable wildfires can happen anywhere with a lot of timber. For those that have their homes and livelihoods in the forests that spill down the side of the Cascades, there is quite a bit to think about.

For starters, a term: “Wildland Urban Interface.”

The U.S. Forest Service defines it as where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” These areas are at higher risk of wildfires. Federal Emergency Management Agency assessments have determined 60,000 U.S. communities are at risk of Wildland Urban Interface fires.

There are 130,000 county residents who live in areas the Snohomish County Department Emergency Management classifies as Wildland Urban Interface. There’s even a tool for residents to check where they can type in their address and see if their home is in a hazard-prone location.

“I think historically there’s been this conception that wildfires are things that happen on the east side of the Cascades where it’s drier,” Snohomish County DEM Director Lucia Schmit said. “We can get those big conflagrations out there, particularly when we’re getting the winds from the east are blowing and particularly when we’re having a dry summer … it’s going to become an increasing concern over time.”

Preparing for and preventing catastrophic fires is a complex balancing act. Every state in the West experienced a growth in population between the 2010 and 2020 census. In Washington alone, the population increased by over a million people in a decade. It is also getting hotter and drier as the climate changes.

As the Western half of the country contains most of its forested and natural land, the number of people living in areas where fire is a major risk has increased. Rising housing costs play a part in the population movement, as it can often be cheaper to live in a smaller, more rural town.

With new residents comes a greater need for fire education. Meetings regarding that very topic area already beginning — one at 7 p.m. April 26 in Startup at the Startup Event Center and another in Arlington at 6:30 p.m. May 9 at North County Fire Station No. 48.

A firefighting helicopter carries a bucket of water from a nearby river to the Bolt Creek Fire on Saturday, Sep. 10, 2022, on U.S. 2 near Index, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A firefighting helicopter carries a bucket of water from a nearby river to the Bolt Creek Fire on Saturday, Sep. 10, 2022, on U.S. 2 near Index, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Gold Bar Fire Chief Eric Andrews, who has been with Sky Valley Fire since 1977, is presenting in Startup.

His best piece of advice? Have a plan.

“Don’t wait until the fire happens, prepare ahead of time and have a plan to escape,” Andrews said.

Other bits of advice he offered were to remove flammable materials around homes, including woodpiles, and to understand the Ready, Set, Go evacuation system. Knowing what to take is important to — if someone lives in an area where they might have to evacuate, it is a good idea to have a go-bag packed with important papers and medical essentials.

Having a defensible space around a structure can help save property too. Wood roofs are objected to in the strongest possible way by Andrews, who suggests metal or other fireproof roofing.

Fully suppressing every fire that pops up is not the goal. It is not feasible nor healthy for forests to never burn. So one strategy land management agencies use to strike that balance is controlled, prescribed burns.

Local prescribed burns were announced last week by the U.S. Forest Service, which will include areas along the Mountain Loop Highway. Residents and travelers around Verlot and Darrington may see smoke in coming weeks.

Other areas with prescribed burns also include the Mt. Baker Highway and the Baker Lake basin. These burns remove fuels and brush from areas at high risk of a serious fire. Moisture levels and winds help determine when the prescribed burns are started, as well as if they are stopped.

The burns are being prescribed as a new forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center stating parts of Washington have an increased risk of fire potential this season. July will see the highest risk of dangerous fires in the area, according to the report.

While those fire outlooks can be fallible, Andrews said, the threat is very real.

“There’s always going to be some time during the year, it seems like, at least over the past couple years, that we’re going to have a very high fire danger,” Andrews said. “What we’re seeing, and what we’re used to rarely seeing on the west side (of the Cascades), is a lot more Red Flag Warnings. In fact, a lot of people on the west side never even used to know what a Red Flag Warning was. Now it’s very common.”

Red Flag Warnings mean the conditions are the right combination of dry, hot and windy for the potential of a serious blaze. All it would take is a chain dragging off a vehicle to light a spark and, suddenly, conflagration.

“If a fire gets to communities and we’re not able to keep it away from it, we will see hundreds of houses burning. I have no doubt about that,” Andrews said. “And we’re even worse because we have that tonnage of that fuel.”

Andrews said during the Bolt Creek Fire that firefighters saw fuel loads of 300 tons per acre, which is extremely heavy and worrisome. Trees killed by bugs also play a part in the issue. Fires are also put out quickly in the area, meaning massive fires have not swept through in recent memory.

“Because people are out in that wildland interface, we usually get calls early on and we’re able to put those fires out, fires that probably would have many, many years ago would have burned,” Andrews said.

The Interagency Fire Center report states the buildup of fuels in Central Washington are “considered substantial enough to warrant elevated significant fire risk beginning in July.” Precipitation in Washington for the month of March was generally below normal as well.

Nationally, there were 68,988 wildfires that burned 7,577,183 acres in the United States last year. Washington had 14 large fires in 2022, which burned over 84,000 acres. That includes the Bolt Creek fire near Skykomish and Index last fall.

“If a fire gets to communities and we’re not able to keep it away from it, we will see hundreds of houses burning. I have no doubt about that,” Andrews said. “And we’re even worse because we have that tonnage of that fuel.”

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@soundpublishing.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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