In Drier Washington State, Fire Chiefs Say Wildfires Could Scorch Any City
In a field on the outskirts of Spokane, Wash., Peter Goldmark points across to a charred, rocky hillside where the Little Spokane fire burned dangerously close to the city limits earlier this month.
He says the wildfire was relatively small but had huge potential for destruction. Like many Western cities, greater Spokane has been home to rapid growth in recent years, and the forests surrounding the footprint of the Little Spokane blaze are cluttered with subdivisions, shopping centers and golf courses.
And because of historic drought, this year those forests are also extremely fire-prone.
"Obviously the proximity to homes is one of the many reasons why we worked so hard and effectively on this particular fire," says Goldmark, the commissioner of public lands with the state's Department of Natural Resources.
Fortunately, initial attack crews got on it quickly. But Goldmark knows that won't always be the case, as Washington increasingly wrestles with an unwelcome phenomenon that officials here call the "urban wildfire."
That's when a wildfire starts in a forest and then quickly spreads toward — or into — whole communities. At Little Spokane, the worry was that the blaze was burning so hot that it had the potential to spread into the city limits of Spokane, and its avenues lined with towering Ponderosa pines.
In response to this growing threat, and with wildfire season off to an unusually early start in the Northwest, Goldmark's agency is ramping up its aerial firefighting fleet: This summer they're adding three new single-engine air tankers, and a new helicopter will join the existing fleet of six.
"We need more resources to deal with this emerging threat of really hot conditions, which make our many communities at risk," Goldmark says.
A New Norm
There's precedent for this new type of wildfire in other, typically drier Western states. In recent years, wildfires wiped out whole neighborhoods in Colorado Springs and San Diego County in just hours. Talk to a lot of fire chiefs here, and they'll tell you that this may be the future for Washington too.
"Our climate is getting closer to Southern California," says John Sinclair, chief of Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue.
On the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, it's Sinclair's job to suppress fires across a 270-square-mile jurisdiction. This includes several small cities and scores of recently built subdivisions in dense pine and Douglas fir forests.
"We're seeing significant amounts of fires in places where we've never seen fires before," Sinclair says.
Most of the mountains around his district haven't seen any significant rainfall for months, and they're coming off a winter that saw record-low snowfall too.
To add to the troubles, Sinclair says, many neighborhoods in the foothills have been slow to clear out brush and fuel around homes. It just wasn't really on the radar until recently.
"I'm not a climatologist, so I don't know exactly what's driving it," he says. "But I know what the outcome is."
'Sometimes, It Takes A Disaster'
Like in Spokane, Sinclair already has had a few too-close-for-comfort brushes with urban fires this summer. One near miss, as he calls it, happened just a couple of miles from his station in downtown Ellensburg.
A brush fire likely caused by a tossed-out cigarette butt ignited in a field and jumped the highway. It didn't take long for the tinder-dry juniper bushes to catch fire, then the roof of a condo.
"That's the kind of thing, in a very urban environment, that — with this kind of vegetation — it goes so quickly, 'cause it's so dry," Sinclair says.
Luckily, firefighters responded within minutes. But Sinclair says it was a wake-up call. There should be a sense of urgency around wildfire mitigation and prevention in a year like this.
"Unfortunately, sometimes, it takes a disaster to really capture the community's attention," he says.
Unprecedented Fire Conditions
Disasters are happening. Summers here are getting longer and hotter. Some fires are burning more intensely than ever. And the hard truth is that some blazes just aren't going to be stopped, no matter how much prevention is done up front.
A few weeks ago, a wildfire raced up a hill and into Cindy Dominguez's neighborhood on the western edge of Wenatchee.
It didn't just burn her family's house; it turned it into a pile of ash.
"Huge embers, our neighbors told us, were just flying overhead," Dominguez says.
Before firefighters could contain it, the blaze destroyed more than 30 other structures — including warehouses a mile away, across town.
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