Trial by Fire: Training in the Wildland Urban Interface
Written by Jon Riley, Chelan County Fire District 1
When I took the position of Community Wildfire Liaison I had no idea what to do or a solid understanding of a “fire adapted community”. The concepts around both seemed vague: no checklist, no itinerary, no tangible goals. In the past 10 months, I have organized classes, cut brush, written grants, completed home assessments, and watched more than a few webinars. Nearly a year down and I am certain there is no finish line. Maybe that’s the point, it is a constant progression not a goal. I paraphrase John Marshall, a local area photographer and forest health advocate: “it is what you make it.”
What became the “Westridge Training Fire” began with two neighbors asking for support in fuels reduction and raising awareness to the risks of wildfire. The Westridge neighborhood is situated atop a ridge of dense sage and non-native grasses, facing prevailing winds that will take your hat off just about every day. Most of the houses on the ridge lie within 30 feet of a 20% (or greater) slope, have continuous vegetation from the hillside right up to structures, flammable siding, attached wooden fences, wooden decks, bark mulch, dead leaves and debris everywhere, and of course arborvitae. There are even shake roofs crawling with dead vines.
Due to the topography, residents considered removal of vegetation by hand “inefficient” and the opinion was broadcast burning was the only option. So, when Chief Burnett offered to burn the hillside through a training exercise, I gulped, and began to gather every forestry, fire, and natural resource expert I could get my hands on (thank you everyone). Together, we assessed the landscape and shared observations with the community through a panel discussion. Of the 33 households in the neighborhood about 8 people showed up and the prevailing attitudes of non-participants were “there has never been a fire here before” and “it’s my neighbor’s problem not mine.” Anyone reading this likely has their hand on their forehead like I did at the time.
The neighborhood risk assessment outlined existing conditions and recommended improvements in the structure ignition zone; a single structure fire would be a huge risk to everyone in the neighborhood including those across the street. Included in the assessment were recommendations for removing vegetation including detailed burn pile construction guidelines.
The audience reaction was impressive.
Over the following four months, residents organized, removed vegetation, and started having those “across the fence conversations” about working together to reduce wildfire risk. Come May, 62 piles dotted a two acres, residents were requesting home assessments and truckloads of evergreen shrubs were being hauled away.
Wildfire season was just around the corner and this was our organization’s first time conducting a controlled burn training fire in the wildland urban interface (WUI). The pressure was on to pull this off. Thoughts of national news headlines reading “Training fire escapes, burns down houses, search continues for man responsible” kept me up at night. I was beyond grateful when our mutual aid partners agreed to participate (THANK YOU AGAIN). However, coordinating a date with half a dozen agencies narrowed our burn window down to a single day; not ideal for following a prescription.
The events of the day went about a smooth as I could imagine: we hit our timelines narrowly to the minute save for the actual burn which took only half the time scheduled. 10 apparatus and 60 personnel were organized into a mock incident command structure under firing, holding, structure protection and water supply. Each assignment and was in place during the burn, and later shuffled to participate in different aspects of the WUI fire training including triage, structure protection, handline construction, and weather observations.
The consensus was the project was a success and considering I’m not living in Forks hiding from news reporters I tend to agree. There are, however, always areas to improve. Organizing 60 interagency personnel and providing an equal opportunity for each to train was a real challenge. I would not have predicted that burning 62 piles would take an hour and a half, and pausing pile ignition to move folks around between the fire and structure protection will be a consideration for the future. Far fewer resources would be necessary if burning was conducted in the late fall, or earlier in the spring. There were also a couple logistical issues that fell through the cracks, for example when you provide 60 firefighters breakfast of fruit, muffins, and unlimited coffee you must also provide them with a bathroom.
Months following the fire we are still getting requests for home assessments and Westridge residents have formed a board to participate in the Firewise program. I like to think of this project demonstrated “shared responsibility,” what I believe to be the roots of any fire adapted community: public organizations pursuing education, risk reduction, and response alongside empowered citizens addressing hazardous fuels, improving structure resilience, and participating in an ongoing wildfire conversation. It is collaboration like we saw May 8th and the months prior that exemplify a fire adapted community.