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Preventive measures

Cheney Free Press of Cheney, Washington

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It's not too early to take wildfire protection steps

That column of smoke Cheney-area residents saw Monday afternoon was merely a prescribed burn at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

Spokane County Fire District 3 and other area fire officials want to make sure people know what to do to protect their home and themselves should that column of smoke mean something more real this summer.

Division Chief Debby Dodson said the district "lucked out" last summer with regards to wildland fires caused and fueled by extreme weather and drought conditions. While much of Central and Northeast Washington burned in August, the largest significant fire on the West Plains was the 145-acre Scribner Road blaze between Fish Lake and Marshall June 17, which required several agencies, air support and about 150 firefighters to contain.

That doesn't mean local crews weren't busy. Between May 19 and Aug. 27, district crews responded 65 times to combat blazes, including the larger state mobilization near the Colville and Spokane tribal reservations.

"Typically, we have one truck out (on state mobilizations)," Dodson said. "During the height of everything, we had four trucks gone."

Drought conditions the past two years have been somewhat alleviated thanks to a snowier winter and mountain snowpack levels closer to normal, but those snowpacks are melting faster than usual due to warmer than normal evening temperatures. And while the spring rain keeps things green, it also makes things grow fast and thick, which if hot weather arrives early again this year, will dry out the underbrush.

Dodson said if the normal weather pattern returns to the area, bringing back lightning storms that last year went to the north, that dry underbrush becomes fuel for any spark that falls into it.

She and other fire officials are reminding residents to create a defensible space around their homes to help with the structure's survivability, particularly those living in what she termed the "wildland urban interface."

"Basically, more and more people are building their homes within the trees," she said.

Defensible space starts by removing fuels from within 30 feet around the home by doing things like trimming trees, removing beauty bark, keeping lawns green or at least mowed if there are water supply concerns and not stacking wood against the house. Dodson also said people who own campers and boats should move them away from the home.

"Most people don't think of those as fuels," she said.

Trees should be trimmed of branches to a height of 10 feet, or at least to whatever can be safely reached. Manmade fires can be prevented by not using burn-barrels — which are illegal in this state — chainsaws, welders, ATVs and other pieces of equipment in dry conditions.

Dodson said property owners with downed trees still remaining from November's windstorm should have those removed not only because they are fuels but also because they could hamper fire crews' access to the property. State Department of Natural Resources forester Guy Gifford said downed trees aren't a big problem on public lands, adding that more were knocked down during 1996's Ice Storm than last November.

What is an issue right now that can add to the fuel load is the infestation of bark beetles. The beetles eat sugar that's in tree bark, which not only kills live trees but leads to them attacking downed material as well.

"That's why you want to clean up your downed material now," Gifford said.

If a fire should occur, Dodson said residents should follow law enforcement instructions, particularly when it comes to evacuation orders. A list of instructions on what to do when a fire occurs is available by picking up a copy of "Living with fire: A Guide for the Homeowner" at District 3 headquarters on Presley Drive.

A final message Dodson said they want to get out is to ask the public not to use unmanned aircraft systems — drones — near wildland fires.

DNR Communications Manager Janet Pearce said the department doesn't have a drone policy, but rather follows the U.S. Forest Service policy, which was established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That policy is summed up in a U.S. Department of Agriculture, which the Forest Service is part of, poster that states "If You Fly, We Can't."

"It's the same old thing, technology is ahead of regulations," Dodson added. "If drones go up, air support gets grounded."

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.



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Original Publication Date: April 28, 2016



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