Smell smoke?

Professor Dwight Barry doesn't fight wildland fires anymore, but his latest project has the potential to douse more blazes than by adding him to the county firefighting force.

Barry and students with Peninsula College's Center of Excellence have completed the Web-based version of their Olympic Peninsula wildfire study. It's a user-friendly program using Google Earth that allows peninsula residents - or potential residents - to type in an address and find exactly what kind of wildfire dangers exist for that property.

Bound to burn?

And just in time too, as the Olympic Peninsula's wildfire season begins.

Barry, student Chris DeSisto, and others collected data from fire department, county and regional sources to form the "Wildfire on the Peninsula: An Assessment of Hazard, Risk, and Mitigation Opportunities in Eastern Clallam County." It's an in-depth look at various factors contributing to the potential for a fire calamity in Clallam County ("Bound to Burn?" Sequim Gazette, Aug. 20, 2008, page A-1).

The group looked at seasonal temperatures, steep slopes in and near the Olympic Mountain foothills, wind, nearness to fire stations and more.

What they found, Barry says, is a high risk for the kind of fire that torched 1,600 acres of forest near Forks and the Calawah River Valley in the summer of 1951. The risk is particularly high for properties between Olympic National Park and the flat land near the Strait of Juan De Fuca.

These areas often are called wildland urban interface areas, or areas where houses meet or "intermingle with undeveloped wildland vegetation," according to the college study.

An ever-growing level of dead, dry vegetation and occasional high winds - at least 8 to 10 miles per hour, usually from the east - is a recipe for uncontrolled wildfire.

Although Washington state may seem a less likely candidate for wildfire - compared, say, with Arizona or California - some experts disagree.

In 2007, Headwaters Economics, a social science research group based in Montana, conducted a study that found Clallam County has the fifth-highest existing risk for property loss among 413 counties in the western United States.

"It's a catastrophe waiting to happen," Barry says.

The study fueled the Web-based product, one that does require users to download Google Earth, a program that displays geography for nearly every point on the globe. The college program allows residents to see if their house is in a potentially hazardous wildfire zone.

If so, the accompanying study in "pdf" format offers suggestions to make homes more wildfire-safe, such as:

_ Using fire-resistant materials for roofs and decks

_ Installing double-paned or tempered glass for windows

_ Using cement, plaster, stucco or concrete masonry for exterior walls

_ Keeping gutters clear of dried leaves and needles, and

_ Moving stacks of wood away from the home or other structures.

The Web application should be invaluable for those looking at moving to the region but hoping to avoid buying a home that is a potential wildfire victim.

The project started in 2007 as Barry worked with county officials to try to develop a community wildfire plan.

The challenge, he says, was compiling all of the amounts of data into a single result.

Now Barry is putting the project in front of property owners at home shows and the like, helping citizens become aware of the danger of wildfire.

Barry says the online map may have other uses; now he's working with Sequim police to develop computerized crime patterns.

He's also working with county officials to develop a Community Wildfire Protection Plan - a study necessary for counties wanting to apply for national wildfire funding sources - after recently receiving a grant.

Copies of the wildfire atlas are available online - - and at peninsula public libraries.

Reach Michael Dashiell at

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