Bound to burn?

Southern California isn't the only region threatened by fire run amok.

A combination of unpredictable winds, steep slopes, dry summer weather, buildup of dry vegetation and limited access to roads has much of the Olympic Peninsula primed for a catastrophic wildfire emergency.

Two recent wildfire studies - one, a Western states regionwide study conducted by an independent, nonprofit research group; the other, an examination conducted by Peninsula College Center of Excellence - suggest the peninsula's residents, flora and fauna all are vulnerable to wildfire, particularly in the late summer months.

"That's why we put a burn ban on these months," said Al Knobbs, assistant chief at District 3 in Sequim. "Much of the ... undergrowth gets so dense. We've dodged a bullet several times."

The Olympic Peninsula's reputation for rainfall belies the reality of wildfire danger, as noted by Headwaters Economics, a social science research group based in Montana. Its study found Clallam County has the highest existing risk of catastrophic losses in the event of major wildfire in Washington state and is fifth-highest among 413 counties in the nation's 11 Western states.

Interested in the rankings, professor Dwight Barry, director of environmental science and resource management at Peninsula College Center of Excellence, and students from his environmental studies class

tackled the threat of wildfire on the peninsula in the fall of 2007. They examined what factors make this region so vulnerable and, pragmatically, what residents and the people who protect them can do to minimize damage. The students' approach: examine the county's rainfall, topography and what wildfires use for fuel based on satellite information and other data, and add variables such as travel time from a fire station and whether an area is within view of a major road.

Then they created a map highlighting areas most susceptible to fire in Clallam County District 3, including Sequim and the surrounding areas.

Barry and Chris DeSisto, a student whose senior project extended the mapping to include the entire peninsula, found the most vulnerable areas were in the foothills of the Olympics, where each of the wildfire factors create unique - and dangerous - conditions.

"It's damp out right now, at least for the next few weeks; it's not going to be an extreme situation in this area," Barry said. "(But) if we have a lightning event in August, we have a potential of something really cranking up."

District 3 officials hope to use the Peninsula College class study as a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, one that spawns federal grants for wildfire prevention.

It also gives firefighters an idea of where the greatest dangers and losses might come in the event of a major fire.

'Million dollar

views' threatened

Although wildfire can come to low-lying areas such as Sequim proper when flames from brush fires get so intense that they literally leap U.S. Highway 101, the most threatened homes are in nearby foothills.

Louella Heights is a gated subdivision in the foothills south of Sequim. Houses are built along narrow, winding gravel roads on steep hillsides above grassy fields. Though the area affords unobstructed views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it's a danger zone for those hoping to protect residents from runaway fires.

"These aren't just little shacks in the woods." Barry said. "This (issue) is particularly relevant in District 3."

Knobbs and other fire officials joined Barry in visiting residents of Louella Heights to get an idea of what problems firefighters can expect to encounter in the event of a major wildfire.

"Understand, we have to drag our water wherever we go," Knobbs said. "Those are million-dollar views, too."

But the million dollar views can turn into ashes. Wildfire spreads quickly through many of the low-lying Olympic Mountain foothills for a number of reasons, often via a buildup of vegetative fuels such as snags, large bushes, grasses and small trees on the forest floor.

The problem compounds when wind propagates surface or so-called "crown" fires, or those burning up through and often atop the forest canopy.

As the college study notes, wildfire isn't always bad. Often caused by lightning strikes, such fires clear out the buildup of fire fuels and spark new growth.

"Disturbance created by fire promotes species regeneration and renewal within forested and prairie ecosystems alike, recycles nutrients across landscapes," the study asserts, "and rearranges the distribution of flora and fauna across bioregions."

But for residents making homes in the heart of the Olympic's foothills - a region dubbed by firefighters the Wildland Urban Interface - fire remains a threat, one that can be lessened dramatically with some simple changes to one's home surroundings.

When building a new home, the college study suggests a number of tips to improve safety from wildfire:

• Chose fire-resistant materials for new roofs, such as tile, metal or asphalt coverings. Roofs are the most prominent way wildfires destroy homes.

• Decks are second only to roofs in assisting wildfires. Use materials less flammable than wood, such as composites, or have the wood treated to resist flames.

• Avoid building on steep slopes or at the top of ravines since fire spreads much faster on slopes. Heavy and wide emergency vehicles need access and a way to turn around as well.

• Use cement, plaster, stucco or concrete masonry for exterior walls; vinyl siding melts at fairly low temperatures.

• Chose double-paned or tempered glass for windows. Avoid plastic skylights.

• Screen all other openings to the outside with mesh.

Other ways to reduce potential fire hazards are to keep stacks of wood away from the house, store all flammables inside and clean gutters of needles and other fire fuels, particularly during the summer months.

"That little stuff makes a big difference," Knobbs said.

Fire officials also urge residents to consider creating what they call "defensible space" or a perimeter around a home up to 90 feet or so.

That includes clearing away dead plants and tree branches from surrounding land and pruning trees up to their 6-foot-mark, Knobbs said, to keep them from becoming a ladder for wildfire.

"You can literally have your house survive an inferno," Barry said, "if you break up fuel continuity."

A history of the

peninsula's wildfires

The conditions for a major wildfire were ripe in the Calawah River Valley and logging town of Forks in the summer of 1951. Sparks from a logging train ignited a fire near Camp Creek on Aug. 6 and proceeded to burn 1,600 acres of forest. Though the fire was controlled, several hot spots remained, and when a strong easterly wind came, the fire re-erupted and tore through the peninsula, racing 18 miles in less than eight hours, charring a path three miles wide.

In all, 30,000 to 38,000 acres of forest burned, along with a mill, motel and 28 homes, though reportedly no one died.

That account shocked DeSisto, the college senior who was a wildland firefighter in Seattle until two years ago.

"The risk here is really the big surprise," he said.

"After I thought about it," Barry added, "(the threat) makes sense." Not so much the threat of fire, the professor noted, but the catastrophic loss from wildfire. With few resources to battle such blazes - or the inability to access the fire's path, similar wildfires just keep burning.

Since 1951, the peninsula has seen numerous significantly smaller fires. According to park sources, about 5,400 acres have burned within park boundaries since 1938, with two fires exceeding more than 1,000 acres burned in the past 50 years.

In 2003, wildfire burned 20 acres on Miller Peninsula and later that year a fire torched about 800 acres at Griff Peak, just north of Hurricane Ridge.

As recent as July 2007, an eight-acre fire just west of Port Angeles' Fairchild Airport threatened several homes; only lack of wind kept firefighters from forcing evacuations, the college study notes.

Should a catastrophic wildfire occur on the Olympic Peninsula, firefighters aren't the only line of defense: along with local fire district staff and volunteers, agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources assist with helicopters and bulldozers, Knobbs said, plus the national park and national forest services have some wildfire-fighting resources. But since the focus of fire fighting is in Eastern Washington - seven of the state's eight fire fighting helicopters are in Eastern Washington, the other in Tumwater - local, immediate resources are rather meager.

Barry and DeSisto hope to complete the study with a road network analysis to determine

the communities most at risk from wildfire. Knobbs hopes to use the study to get Clallam County to revise building codes. Beyond that, he hopes to get more grants to help Barry and his students further their wildfire studies.

After all, Barry noted, such studies can cost fire departments thousands of dollars. Instead, his class of college students did the work.

"We were just thrilled to help them out," Barry said.

District 3 continues the burn ban through October. The peninsula truly isn't safe, Knobbs said, until the first hard rains come. Until then, a catastrophic wildfire is a real possibility.

"It just has to be dry enough," Knobbs said.

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