Washington’s geography helps stave off wildfire destruction

Ellensburg and Selah top a list of communities most at risk for wildfire devastation in the state.

By Alec Regimbal / Yakima Herald-Republic

Fire officials say Central Washington communities are always at risk for wildfires, but they doubt a blaze as deadly and destructive as the Camp Fire in California could happen the same way here.

“Do we have some of the same conditions here in Ellensburg? Yes. But we don’t have the exact same conditions,” said John Sinclair, chief of Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue. “Could a fire start? Absolutely. But so long as we have the ability to get to it quickly and engage the fire, we’re not going to see a situation like the one in Paradise.”

Paradise, California, was consumed by the Camp Fire, an inferno that’s being blamed for at least 71 deaths and the destruction of more than 9,000 structures. It’s the deadliest fire in the state’s history.

Ellensburg and Selah topped a list of communities most at risk for wildfire devastation in Washington. That list, part of a study done by the U.S. Forest Service and Montana-based firm Pyrologix, identified 50 communities in Washington and Oregon with the highest cumulative risk from wildfire, based on the probability of burning and the number of housing units exposed to fire. Ellensburg placed second and Selah was third. Leavenworth was first in Washington.

Despite the ranking, fire officials in Ellensburg and Selah say their communities aren’t likely to experience ruinous blazes like the Camp Fire. For a wildfire of that magnitude to happen in Ellensburg, Sinclair said the area would need to experience a “perfect storm” of circumstances.

“The Camp Fire is a wind-aligned fire with tremendous heat, smoke and ember storms, and there’s no firefighting force you could put out in front of it to stop it. It’s generating its own weather conditions,” Sinclair said. “It’s literally hell on Earth.”

Paradise is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, which means trees and other fire fuels made dry by California’s sweltering heat carried the blaze right into town, Sinclair said. Additionally, he said the area’s geography — high mountains and deep valleys — created a “funnel” effect that augmented wind speeds, allowing the fire to spread at a pace that made it impossible to contain.

Ellensburg, by contrast, is on a valley floor and surrounded by irrigated farmland. While wildfires that threaten the city are certainly possible, Sinclair said — given the geography, few fire fuels and the city’s resources — it’s unlikely a fire would start under circumstances in which firefighters couldn’t get control of it quickly. Additionally, he said, Ellensburg has plenty of exit routes, meaning that if a wildfire were bearing down on the city, it wouldn’t be as deadly since residents could evacuate quickly.

Selah

Like Sinclair, Selah Fire Chief Gary Hanna said a wildfire could threaten his community, but doubts it would do significant damage to Selah proper. He said Selah has several “buffer zones” between its buildings and the city’s outskirts where firefighters could get control of encroaching flames. He also said the city itself doesn’t contain many fire fuels, which would make it difficult for fire to spread quickly through town.

“There’s not a lot of grass and brush to carry flames to the next house, then to the next house, then to the next and the next,” he said.

However, while the city may be safe from danger, Hanna said homes on the city’s outskirts or in surrounding areas — such as those in Lookout Point on Selah Ridge — are at risk. Last year, a 400-acre brush fire threatened about 75 homes near Lookout Point.

Like California, Washington has been dealing with increasingly long and costly fire seasons spurred by rising temperatures due to climate change. This year was the worst wildfire season in state history, with more than 1,700 reported. But unlike California, Washington’s fire season typically ends in October as temperatures cool. And, given Washington’s smaller population, it’s less likely for towns and homes to be in the direct path of wildfires.

Other area communities and neighborhoods that made the top-50 list in Washington state were Goldendale (7), Cle Elum (16), Kittitas (20), Ahtanum (22), Summitview (23), Thorp (27), White Swan (33), Klickitat (36), Yakima (37), Naches (38), Cowiche (48), Terrace Heights (49) and Gleed (50).

Roslyn and nearby Ronald in Upper Kittitas County did not make the list. Both communities are surrounded by forest and were threatened the Jolly Mountain Fire in 2017, prompting evacuations. White Swan was threatened by a brush fire in summer 2018. The fast-moving Taylor Bridge Fire destroyed 60 homes between Cle Elum and Ellensburg in August 2012.

Taking action

Fire officials say the best way to protect a home in an area susceptible to wildfires is to create “defensible space” around a home. A defensible space is described as a buffer zone between a house and wildland.

To create such space, officials recommend keeping plants, weeds and flammable materials — such as firewood — away from the house. They also advise rural homeowners to keep grass mowed to about 4 inches, which ensures that any flames that do catch will not be tall, and trimming low-hanging tree branches to about 6 feet off the ground. They say homeowners should also space trees far enough apart to keep fire from spreading through the tree tops.

Aside from protecting the house itself, Sinclair said these spaces allow firefighters to mount a better defense if a wildfire does start.

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