Recently, Suzanne Wade, the Firewise/Fuels Reduction Coordinator with the Kittitas County Conservation District in Ellensburg, WA shared a great mitigation success story with me. It was one of those goose bump generating testimonials that empower us all to keep moving forward and spreading the mitigation message. I immediately asked her if she’d be a guest blogger and share that same story with all of you. Our thanks to Suzanne for sharing her experience in the post below.
On August 13, 2012, my job as Firewise and fuels reduction coordinator for the Kittitas County Conservation District (KCCD) changed dramatically. On that date, the Taylor Bridge Fire tore through the middle of our county, burning more than 22,000 acres, prompting hundreds to evacuate, and destroying 61 homes and other structures. Many landowners didn’t know where to turn for information and assistance; our state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and local firefighters were on various fires, so KCCD stepped in to answer questions and provide technical assistance.
Anna Lael, KCCD’s District Manager describes their role, “The Conservation District is able to fill in and help landowners during the high fire season when other agencies are actually fighting the fires. Landowners call and schedule visits at their homes to assess defensible space and wildfire survivability.”
Watching the fire progress, I didn’t see how any home would survive; I called a contractor we’d worked with prior to the Taylor Bridge Fire in our cost-share program where a contractor limbs branches 15 feet up, thins trees that grew too close together, and removes ladder fuels. In that conversation, the contractor agreed, he didn’t see how structures would survive such a fast and destructive fire. Fortunately, our doubts were unfounded and the six projects KCCD had provided assistance on in the fire perimeter survived due to the defensible space measures that had been taken. For one landowner that had received assistance, the two houses to both the south and north that had not participated in the cost share program burned to the ground.
Another evacuated landowner sent us her thoughts after the fire. “Clearly, we do so appreciate your foresight, initiative, and hard work to get so much land prepped just in time for the "big one." We feel so very fortunate that our dream come true can live on, and certainly wish those who have lost theirs could have benefited similarly from your program. We cannot thank you enough.”
Requests for defensible space assessments and technical assistance have sky-rocketed with the fires we’ve endured over the past few years. Requests increased from 3-4 per month, to 7-8 per day during a fire. Even now, three years later, requests are ten times the number they were prior to 2012. This also includes inquiries on how a community can become a recognized Firewise Community.
In addition to cost-share, the District worked with Fire District #7 to train a fuels reduction crew to assist landowners. Primarily, they provide a roving chipper that is offered to landowners who want to prune and thin their own trees and then stack the debris by their driveways for the crew to chip. KCCD offers this as an incentive for communities to become a recognized Firewise Community.
“Having had at least three volunteer firefighters working for both the Fire District and the Conservation District over the last four years has been our saving grace when wildfires broke out across eastern Washington”, said Fire District #7 Chief Russ Hobbs.
The roving chipper has become quite a popular program and KCCD has helped 17 communities become and remain recognized by the national Firewise Communities, USA® program. We had worked with only two prior to the fire.
Carolyn Berglund, an evacuated landowner in the Taylor Bridge Fire, summed up what she has advocated to her neighbors since the fire, “Landowners need to take fuels reduction and Firewise efforts seriously and educate their neighbors so that communities are able to be more resilient. By employing the principles of defensible space, you make it easier for firefighters to fight the fire and easier for a fire to go around you. It’s a sense of responsibility to the other people that live close by, and the community as a whole.”