Understanding Wildfires: Essential Tips for Wildfire Awareness Month in the Northwest

by Chad Hultz

Wildfires have increasingly become a focal point of concern across the Northwest, transforming landscapes and affecting lives with devastating regularity. In 2023, the sheer magnitude of land affected by wildfires is alarming, with states like Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon reporting hundreds of thousands of acres consumed by fires. These events not only recount a tale of loss and displacement but also highlight the critical need for heightened awareness and preparedness. The importance of understanding and mitigating the wildfire impact cannot be overstated, especially as the frequency and intensity of these natural disasters continue to rise due to various factors, including climate change.

The Growing Threat of Wildfires in the Northwest

Recent years have seen a stark increase in wildfire activity in the Northwest. Analysis of historical data reveals a concerning trend of warmer and drier conditions correlating with larger fires and greater areas burned. The year 2021 surpassed historical averages in both duration and fire activity, with over 1.5 million acres affected—125% of the ten-year average. The escalation in wildfire incidents underscores the urgent need for understanding and addressing the changing fire regimes.

2023 Wildfire Acreage in the Northwest

According to Pemco Insurance, in 2023, wildfires continued to ravage the Northwest, with significant acreage burned across several states. Idaho saw 97,504 acres burned, Montana 117,553 acres, Wyoming 7,934 acres, Washington 151,316 acres, and Oregon 13,071 acres. These figures highlight the ongoing challenge of managing wildfires in the region and the importance of preparedness and prevention strategies to mitigate future risks.

Preventative Measures for Wildfire Preparedness

Creating Defensible Space Around Homes

Homeowners are encouraged to create a buffer zone, known as defensible space, between their property and the adjacent wildland. This space is crucial for slowing or stopping the spread of wildfires and for the safety of firefighters defending the property. The defensible space is divided into zones with specific guidelines aimed at reducing wildfire spread and enhancing fire mitigation efforts.

In Zone 0, which extends 5 feet from buildings and structures, removing flammable materials and ensuring no vegetation is in contact with the structure is vital for preventing fires from spreading to the home and reducing home ignition risks.

Zone 1 extends 30 feet from buildings, where homeowners should control vegetation and remove dead debris to prevent a wildfire from reaching the structure. Fire-resistant landscaping within this zone can significantly enhance a home's wildfire defense by utilizing fire-resistant materials.

Community Efforts and Firewise Strategies

Communities are encouraged to engage in Firewise landscaping, a strategy that involves designing and maintaining landscapes to reduce fuel for wildfires. This includes planting fire-resistant plants and creating defensible space around homes and other structures, contributing to overall wildfire mitigation.

Public meetings, educational events, and community wildfire protection plans are essential in promoting wildfire education and involvement in wildfire preparedness. These plans analyze the wildfire risk and guide mitigation efforts, serving as a cornerstone of public education.

Evacuation route planning is critical. Communities should work with local government agencies to ensure that the evacuation plan routes are clear and accessible in the event of a wildfire.

Regulations on Outdoor Burning

Outdoor and agricultural burning is regulated to reduce the risk of wildfires. The Northwest Clean Air Agency, under specific acts and rules, oversees these activities in certain jurisdictions. Residents are advised against outdoor burning to dispose of materials, as it poses significant health risks and contributes to air pollution, especially during fire prevention month.

Debris burning, a leading cause of wildfires on state-protected lands, requires adherence to specific regulations. Before burning, individuals must obtain permissions, adhere to wind conditions, and ensure the availability of extinguishing resources, emphasizing the importance of campfire safety.

In urban growth areas and specific cities and towns, residential yard debris and land-clearing burning are prohibited. Alternatives to burning are encouraged to minimize air pollution and protect community health, thereby preventing wildfires and contributing to the prevention of wildfires.

By integrating these preventative measures, individuals and communities can significantly contribute to wildfire preparedness, ensuring a safer environment for all. Following wildfire prevention tips can make a substantial difference.

Wildfire Awareness Month: Activities and Resources

National Wildfire Awareness Month serves as a crucial period for enhancing community preparedness and resilience against wildfires. This fire awareness month is dedicated to educating the public about the risks associated with wildfires and the steps that can be taken to mitigate these risks. Activities and resources are made available to communities, providing valuable support in their efforts to become more fire-adapted.

Community Events and Education Programs

Wildfire Community Preparedness Day marks a significant event where individuals and organizations unite to raise awareness and reduce wildfire risks. Held on the first Saturday in May, this event encourages participation across the United States and Canada, demonstrating how a community can prepare for a wildfire.

Educational campaigns and workshops are conducted throughout the month, focusing on the causes of wildfires, the importance of creating defensible space, and the benefits of being a Firewise® Community. These programs are designed to empower residents with the knowledge to protect their homes and surroundings, addressing the question of how we can prevent wildfires and exploring whether wildfires are preventable.

Special events, such as the Facebook Live event hosted by NFPA, offer insights into planning for Wildfire Preparedness Day, featuring discussions with experts who share their experiences and tips for community engagement.

Tools and Support from Local Organizations

Local organizations play a pivotal role in supporting communities during Wildfire Awareness Month, offering essential community assistance. They provide:

A Prep Day toolkit containing project ideas, safety tips, and wildfire resources to guide individuals and groups in organizing events and taking actionable steps towards wildfire preparedness.

Access to the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, which facilitates the exchange of information and collaboration among communities striving to live safely with wildfire.

Various programs offering grants, technical assistance, and educational resources to actively manage and reduce wildfire risk, fostering a strong wildfire partnership.

How to Protect Yourself During Wildfire Season

Emergency Plan Development

Developing a comprehensive emergency plan is the first step in safeguarding against the threats posed by wildfires. This plan, serving as a wildfire evacuation checklist, should include detailed evacuation routes known to all household members and practiced regularly. Special arrangements for pets and larger animals should be considered, alongside a robust family communication strategy to maintain contact in case of separation.

It's essential to know the locations and operations of gas, electric, and water main shut-off controls. Preparing an Emergency Supply Kit for each family member, as recommended by the American Red Cross, and keeping fire extinguishers readily available and inspected are also critical components of a well-thought-out plan.

Creating a Wildfire Emergency Kit

Pack essentials such as a 3-day supply of non-perishable food and 3 gallons of water per person.

Include a first aid kit, necessary medications, a battery-operated radio, durable flashlights, extra batteries, and phone chargers.

Prepare important documents like birth certificates and insurance policies for quick access.

Ensure your insurance policies are up to date and have the right coverage you need.

Ensure to have protective clothing and sturdy shoes ready for a quick evacuation.

Staying Informed Through Local Alerts

Staying updated with the latest information during wildfire season is crucial for timely and effective action. Residents should sign up for local emergency alertsvto receive updates directly via email or phone. Following local media and official alerts from fire departments or city authorities will provide guidance on potential evacuations and safety measures, ensuring you're always in the loop with wildfire alerts.

As we reflect on the significance of Wildfire Awareness Month and the collective efforts toward fostering a safer environment, it's clear that the journey towards wildfire resilience is both necessary and ongoing. The combination of community engagement, strategic planning, and individual preparedness represents our best defense in mitigating future risks. While the numbers from 2023 serve as a stark reminder of the challenges faced, they also emphasize the potential for impactful action. It's imperative that we continue to advocate for and participate in initiatives aimed at forest fire prevention, driven by the understanding that preparedness is not just a response, but a responsibility.

To learn more go to https://pemco.com/blog/wildfire