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Tips for preparing for fire season

By Bill Kresge

Special to Okanogan Living

Why do we live in the Okanogan? Living in the Okanogan can be a real challenge, for some that’s a big part of why we are here. Okanogan weather is one of those challenges, four seasons; dust, ice, mud and then FIRE SEASON.

Fire season is part of the price we pay to live here. Fire is part of what makes the whole eco-system work. Fire’s been shaping this area for thousands of years and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Wildfire can put our homes at risk. Our homes are where we get out of the heat, the cold, the snow, sometimes the rain. We also spend quality time with ourselves, friends, and families in our homes. Our homes are special. We keep special photos, documents, keepsakes, or simply our memories of special times and people in our homes. When something happens to a home you hear people say; “Well it’s okay all you lost was stuff and that can be replaced. At least nobody got hurt.” Take it from someone who lost a home, they mean well but they’re wrong, there are many things that simply can’t be replaced.

I don’t write this to frighten anyone. The truth is when you’re on the road you’re more likely to have an accident than having a wildfire burn down your house. In most cases though, if nobody gets hurt, it’s really not all that hard to replace a vehicle, much easier than losing what’s truly irreplaceable in your home.

Here’s some reality about wildfires in Okanogan County. Our county is larger than some states. We have a population of under 50,000. We are protected from fire by sixteen fire districts, all volunteer with several career officers in some districts. They are all some of the bravest and most competent men and women you could ever hope to meet. There are fewer than 700 of them to protect homes, businesses and property in 1600 sq miles of privately owned land. When wildfire season arrives, they go into Immediate Response mode to any wildfire that starts in their area. They frequently get to a fire start before DNR or USFS can get teams on scene. The district firefighters do all they can to contain that fire, protect life, homes and property until wildland firefighters can reach the location to relieve them.

So what’s this all got to do with wildfire mitigation? A lot actually. We live in an area where there will be wildfires. There are limited resources in terms of personnel and equipment and large distances involved to get those resources to fires or your home. Many Okanogan residents want to take personal responsibility for their lives and are willing to sacrifice a lot to be able to exercise that right. Not only is this an opportunity to take personal responsibility for your wellbeing, it’s one that offers a potentially huge payoff.

There are different types of wildfire mitigation opportunities available to property owners and people renting homes. One of the most basic and inexpensive is also one of the most effective. It simply requires removing all flammable material in an area five feet out away from the foundation of your home. This simple and inexpensive act is effective because between 60 to 90% of homes lost in wildfires burn as a result of embers. Embers are thrown ahead of fires. How far depends on a number of factors but under breezy conditions it can easily be a mile. By removing anything flammable within five feet of your home’s foundation you prevent embers from being able to start a fire that can then potentially catch your home on fire.

Now you’ve taken action to prevent embers from accumulating at the base of your home’s foundation and setting anything on fire. The next move is to eliminate anyplace on, or under, your home where embers can land and come in contact with material on your house that can burn.

This becomes a more intensive exercise, certainly doable by a homeowner, but one where a set of trained, experienced eyes can come in handy. Just to give you examples of some areas to check.

• Roofs and gutters need to be cleaned of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers.

• Loose or missing roofing materials need to be removed or repaired to prevent ember penetration.

• All external vents should have 1/8-inch metal mesh screening.

• Replace any broken windows and repair damaged screen. Be sure to close all windows if there is a fire in your area, remember embers can travel a long distance.

Making your home and the area immediately around it ember resistant provides you with the greatest return in protection for your investment in time and resources.

Taking these actions will help your home survive an ember storm.

In the language of wildfire mitigation, the areas around your home are described as an Ignition Zone. This article has focused on the Immediate Zone (0 to 5 feet from your home and including the home). There are two other zones known as the Intermediate Zone (5 to 30 feet from your home) and the Extended Zone (30 to 100+ feet from your home)

Work that is done in the Intermediate Zone helps to slow the fire down by reducing fuel sources near your home. Fuel treatments in the Extended Zone are intended to bring the fire down to the ground and to help break up its progress towards your home.

Part of what makes work in these two zones challenging for the homeowner is the need to make choices and compromises. The area outside of the Immediate zone may already have trees, bushes, outbuildings and other structures that are important to you and are part of your lifestyle. This is where consulting with people who have made a study of wildfire mitigation and have experience in helping people make choices comes into play. These people can help you balance the choice between leaving things as they are versus improving the probability of a wildfire coming through and leaving your house intact.

There has been an upwelling of interest, information, and funding in the field of wildfire mitigation largely because of the increase in homes exposed to wildfire risk. It is fair to say that almost all homes in Okanogan County are at some level of risk of loss due to wildfires.

The bad news is that all evidence to date suggests those risks are likely to increase for the foreseeable future. But there’s good news, as has been described, there are actions homeowners can take to minimize those risks. These are actions that don’t require government approval, permits, inspections, or payment of fees. Even better news, there’s a lot of information available to insure you know what you are doing when you begin protecting your home against wildfire loss. I’ll include a few places to look to get you started. But wait, there’s more. There are people in our county who have training and experience in this field and are available to answer questions and if you would like, will come to your home to help you evaluate your situation.

Here's some final reality. There’s an unescapable reality about the increased numbers and intensity of wildfires in the West. There’s too much fuel, we’re in a period of increased heat and dryness, and there will never be enough firefighters, equipment and resources available to help each homeowner save their home during a large wildfire. I know from experience they will do their best. You having made the effort to protect your home in the way described in this article increases the chances that your home will be considered defendable if personnel and equipment are in your area. Here are a few places to go for more information and the names of people in the area who want to help you help yourself.

Finally there’s a saying that has stood the test of time when it comes to situations like this. “It’s better to have been prepared 10 years too early than too have been late by one day.

Okanogan County Conservation District

Wildfire Resiliency

Eli Loftis 509-429-3453

Dylan Streeter 509-429-4326

Washington State DNR

Community Resilience Coordinator

Will Knowlton 360-972-4272

North County Service Forester

Skyler Goodrich 509-322-6610

South County Service Forester

Sam Halvorsen 509-690-3361

NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Services)Forester

Jeff Paulsen 509-429-1960

Useful websites

(Bill Kresge has lived in Okanogan County for over 20 years. He’s the oldest rookie firefighter in the Tonasket Fire Department (Okanogan County Fire District No. 4). The area he lives in receives more than its share of lightning strikes. Over the years he and his neighbors have put out many fire starts. His concern about friends and neighbors losing their homes led him to learn about wildfire mitigation practices. After years of learning on his own, he took the opportunity to learn from the professionals and has been immersed in study since last November. If you have any questions please feel free to contact him at


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