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Combatting wildland fires by smart living

The last few weeks we’ve been discussing home fire safety. This week we will talk about how to protect you and your home from wildfire.

Here in Grays Harbor we don’t tend to think our land, and particularly our homes, are at risk of wildfire. But as the number of wildfires west of the Olympics continue to increase, that perception needs to change for safety’s sake.

To learn more about the increasing danger and one local fire district’s plan to combat it, we talked with Fire Chief Leonard Johnson of the Grays Harbor Fire District 2. The district includes the Central Park, Brady and Wynoochee fire stations and responds to fires in a 152-square-mile area from Central Park east to the Satsop River, and north to the Jefferson County line (excluding the City of Montesano).

“When you look at the fire statistics, the wildfire impact to the residents here continues to become a larger and larger problem because of the wildland, urban interface,” Chief Johnson explained.

“We are building homes inside areas with trees and other fuels such as shrubs and grasses. We build right in the trees. Seasonally, it’s been so wet that people aren’t so worried – we live near the rain forest after all. However, in the last few years it’s getting drier and drier during summers on the west side and we’re seeing the incidence of wildland fires increase.”

Last summer, Chief Johnson said, District 2 responded to eight wildland fires and this summer, it has responded to that many already!

“What this shows us is that as the environment changes, we are going to have to adapt in order to stay safe from wildland fires,” he said.

Chief Johnson and Grays Harbor Fire District 2 hope to get some help for a Community Risk Reduction “Firewise” grant. A community-based program, Firewise is managed through the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Chief Johnson plans to begin the application process this fall with hopes of being awarded a 2019 grant.

A large part of the Firewise program for communities is teaching community preparedness.

“The concept behind it is preparing a whole community to make changes around their homes so if the area is impacted by wildland fire, the communities will be united and prepared,” he said.


In our neck of the woods, most wildland fires start from outdoor burning of yard waste or garbage that has gotten out of control or other fires started by people on purpose, Chief Johnson said.

Recently his crews responded to a campfire near Wynoochee Lake that spread because campers failed to put it out when they left.

The second most common source is a vehicle or piece of equipment alongside the roadway that malfunctions and sputters sparks into dry grass on the side of the road.

When driving on a flat tire, for instance, if the rim of that tire hits the ground then sparks fly and can start a little blaze – often without the driver even knowing it.

So, Chief Johnson cautions us all to be aware of burn regulations and always watch the weather when you are burning yard waste, he said.

The law states you must be in attendance the whole time you are burning on your property and have a charged water line near the fire, he said.

In addition, according to the law, the burning pile can be no larger than 4-foot by 4-foot with a height of three feet.

“Also, always clear a space away from your burning pile so it can’t get away from you. And, monitor the weather – particularly what the wind is expected to do. If the wind picks up, put out the fire.”

In addition, Chief Johnson said, the burning pile is supposed to contain only natural vegetation. It is illegal to burn even untreated lumber because it is considered a manmade material.

When it comes to pulling over on the side of the road when your car is having trouble – or for any other reason – Chief Johnson suggests avoiding an area that has long dry grass nearby unless there aren’t other alternatives.

Another way to prevent the spread of wildland fire is to manage the landscape around houses and buildings, making sure that there are green belts.

“Reduce the potential fuels around the house – trees, tall dry grass, etc., and instead have green grass or other nonflammable materials near your house for protection.”

Also, be aware of how your home is constructed – and be mindful of the risks associated with it. For instance, a cedar shake roof is much more flammable than other types. For more tips to spot potential hazards within your home, check out our June 23rd post by clicking here.

“We cannot control Mother Nature,” Chief Johnson said. “All we can do is manage how we live in that environment. This is one program to reduce the risk of fire affecting a whole community. I’m really hoping we can become a Firewise community in the 2nd fire district and even that Grays Harbor County will look into adopting it as well.

Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty are construction specialists at NeighborWorks® of Grays Harbor County, where Murnen is the executive director. This is a non-profit organization committed to creating safe and affordable housing opportunities for all residents of Grays Harbor County.

Do you have questions about home repair, renting, remodeling or becoming a homeowner or one of our contractors? We have rehab loan funds at tailored rates! Call us at 533-7828, write us or visit us at 710 E. Market St. in Aberdeen. Our office is ADA compliant, complete with a designated disabled parking spot, ramp and ADA compliant restroom.

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