Western wildfires prompt the “big” question: What can the public do to help?

Blog Post created by laurenbackstrom Employee on Aug 17, 2012

Image - Gary

Hard scaped areas are best

Wildfire season is upon us here in the western United States now, with many wildfires burning in Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Washington, Oregon and California.  In many areas, triple digit daytime temperatures preheat and dry the vegetation on the ground which firefighters call ground fuels. In some instances, it just takes a spark from a vehicle, power line, fireworks, campfire or a lawn mower to start a major fire.  Those are the human caused fires, which can be prevented.  But what about the sources of fire ignition that we can’t prevent such as lightning? The last lightning storm that crossed my region less than two weeks ago in Oregon had over 3,000 down strikes starting numerous small fires with some of them growing to large conflagrations.  Firefighters do a great job attacking small fires before they become large, but statistics have shown that 2% of those fires that firefighters can’t control or extinguish become large fires, so big it takes weeks or in some instances months to control.  Sometimes you just have to wait for a change in the weather to get a handle on these large scale fires. The fact is, there simply is not enough trained firefighters and equipment to suppress or control these large fires.

Now here we are in mid August, about half way through the typical wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest with wildfires burning forests, damaging natural resources, consuming homes and threatening the safety to our public and firefighters.  Just this week, western governors have declared “States of Emergency” to activate additional funding for more firefighting resources.  The public and our wildfire incident commanders are nervous because more storms are on the way.  The public wants to know, what can they do to help?  Make some sandwiches for the firefighters?  Drop off some cool drinks? Put up a sign on the road saying, “Thank You Firefighters for Saving My Home”.  Believe me, the firefighters appreciate these kind words and refreshments, and more importantly the public support.  But if the public really wants to help firefighters, incident commanders and their home state’s financial situation, citizens can get involved before the fire strikes.  Whether you rent your home, buy your home or have a vacation property, you can make it easier for firefighters to defend your investment prior to the fire. 

How do you do this? When a brush fire or the ember shower from a nearby wildfire strikes your area, ask yourself:  are you prepared?  Is your investment, your property, your home, defendable for firefighters?  Look through the goggles of a firefighter as he or she is coming down the road in their fire engine.  What do they see … a fire spreading through a neighborhood quickly. They have several homes to protect and a limited amount of water and backup support.  The firefighter in charge knows safety is the first priority of their crew, so where do you think they might make a stand to save a home?  Will it be the home with the dead grass, dry brush and un-pruned trees right up against the wood fence, deck and wood covered roof of the home?  Or will the firefighters decide to park their engine in a wide driveway next to a home with pruned-up trees, a large manicured landscaped area around the entire home with cleaned up of dead vegetation? As a firefighter, you ask yourself, what is the safest scenario for me and my crew, and where can I do the most fire intervention with the limited suppression capabilities I have?

PhotoWildfire preparedness is often very simple and inexpensive for the majority of property owners. First, you can create a minimum 30-foot zone dubbed “defensible space” or as some call it “survivable space,” around all structures, which often can be done in a weekend.  The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Firewise Communities Program is a great way to learn what you can do now, before the fire strikes, to reduce your risk or becoming a victim of wildfire.  Visit now to find out what prevention actions you can take to minimize the threat of a wildfire reaching your home.  Better yet, get your neighbors involved too!  What your neighbors do or don’t do on their property affects your home and property.  By starting a Firewise community, it gets your entire neighborhood involved, and if everyone participates you actually create a fire break in the fuel, whether it is the grass, brush and trees, or the urban fuel we built  (ie. the home and outbuildings). 

Get involved, be a sparkplug in your community.  Contact your local fire department, state fire agency or the Forest Service and tell them you want to become a Firewise community!  Remember, wildfire protection is not only the responsibility of government agencies but also individual property owners!  So what can you do now to help firefighters?  Visit, follow the Firewise principals to take action now, and order free educational materials to distribute door to door in your community!

-          Gary Marshall

NOTE:  Gary is an NFPA Regional Firewise Advisor for the Northwest, and a resident of central Oregon. He recently retired as the deputy fire chief in Bend, Oregon.