‘Tis the season to worry about wildfires

8:26 pm July 18th, 2012

Nature’s spectacular aerial light show two Sundays ago above Pierce County is the kind of thing that worries the keepers of Washington’s forests this time of year.

Despite the cold and wet start to summer, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is warning that hot, dry weather and the threat of thunderstorms has the fire season in full force.

Lightning that lit up the sky the evening of July 8 and into the wee hours of the next morning produced 6,208 lightning strikes and 13 related fires in a 24-hour period. None of the fires were reported in populated areas of Pierce County, but in locations where they flared up (the mos serious ones were east of the Cascades), firefighters and DNR officials were busy keeping them under control and monitoring the situations.

DNR’s goal and focus is on keeping fire sizes below 10 acres, which greatly reduces the risk and cost of large uncontrolled fires, said state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who heads the agency. The most serious blazes were east of the Cascades.

In between thunderstorms, the potential for human-caused wildfires are an ongoing concern. Last year, 90 percent of wildfires were started by human activity, officials said.

In the past week, officials warned that continued heat and dry conditions are expected on both sides of the Cascades. Fire officials are extra cautious because of the recent warm and dry weather.

This year, DNR has responded to 335 fires statewide that have burned approximately 2,000 acres, officials said.

In Pierce County, local historians remember a wildfire in September 1924 that swept down the hillsides toward Eatonville, ravaged the Pack Forest, Ohop Valley, Kapowsin and Graham areas, destroyed barns, houses and logging camps and killed livestock.

DNR is responsible for preventing and fighting wildfires on 12.7 million acres of private, state and tribal-owned forestland. The agency’s firefighting duties makes it the state’s largest on-call fire department in Washington, with more than 1,000 employees trained and available to be dispatched to fires. During fire season, this includes over 700 DNR employees who have other permanent jobs with the agency, and about 400 seasonal employees hired for firefighting. Additionally, Department of Corrections’ adult offenders and Department of Social and Health Services-Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration juvenile offenders participate in the DNR Correctional Camps Program.

A statewide burn ban (except campfires) covering all DNR-protected lands, effective through Sept. 30, is one preventive measure the agency is using against the threat of wildfires and forest fires. Other ways, which also require the public’s help, include:

• Be sure recreational vehicles have spark arresters, and don’t park vehicles in dry, grassy areas, as the heat from exhaust systems can start a fire.

Shortly after nightfall on July 8, Mother Nature put on her own fireworks display around Mount Rainer as thunderstorms passed on the east flanks of the Cascade foothills. Near Eatonville, motorists stopped on roadsides to watch the show that lasted over an hour. The lightning started wildfires as the storm moved east. (Tony Sirgedas/The Dispatch)

•Never leave a campfire unattended, and that’s out before leaving. To protect homes from becoming wildfire victims, remove moss and needles from the roof and rain gutters, clear vegetation and flammable materials from around propane tanks, stack firewood at least 30 feet away from the house, keep decorative bark and railroad ties away from the foundation, and trim tree branches to 10 feet off the ground for tall trees to reduce “fuel” that helps fires spread, officials said.

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