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In Washington, fighting fire with fire prevention

Why We Wrote This

California communities seeking to limit wildfire destruction could look north to Washington, where one county is applying lessons from blazes in 2015 to reshape its land use policies.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Fire Capt. Amy Head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, right, talks with Gary Bennett, whose home survived the Butts Fire in 2014. Mr. Bennett used terraced landscaping to create defensible space around his home that helped firefighters to defend it from approaching flames. Residents in rural locations are required to to maintain a 100-foot perimeter around buildings in fire-prone areas.

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Wildfires that ravaged the central Washington towns of Wenatchee and Chelan in 2015 scorched more than 100 homes and 93,000 acres. Rather than engage in the magical thinking that persuades communities across the West to rebuild after wildfires without regard for future calamities, residents instead advocated for stronger prevention measures. Officials enlisted the help of Community Planning Assistance for Wildfires, a national program funded by the US Forest Service and private foundations that works with cities to devise land use policies that lower wildfire risks. “When there’s a disaster or close call that brings the awareness of fire danger right to the forefront of people’s minds, you have to capture the momentum if you want change to happen,” says Mike Burnett, a district fire chief with Chelan County, which includes both towns. The prevention efforts in the two cities subsequently led county officials to collaborate with CPAW advisers on similar policies. Paul Hessburg, a Forest Service ecologist and wildfire expert who lives in Wenatchee, suggests that the progress in Chelan County offers hope as climate change magnifies the number and intensity of wildfires. “We’re in a new era,” he says. “We need to get real about the danger.”

The wildfire that menaced the city of Wenatchee in central Washington three years ago delivered its destruction in less than a day. The Sleepy Hollow fire burned 3,000 acres and gutted more than 30 houses and businesses, forcing hundreds of residents to flee the town that bears the moniker “Apple Capital of the World.”

Later that summer, some 40 miles north near the resort town of Chelan, three fires merged into one and wrought devastation over a six-week period. The Chelan Complex fire scorched 90,000 acres and 85 homes, causing more than 1,600 people to evacuate an area best known for boasting the state’s largest natural lake.

In the aftermath, as both communities realized that only fate and firefighters averted a wider cataclysm, a new approach to land use planning sprouted from the charred landscape. The response could serve as an example to cities and counties in California, where fires this year have torched 1.1 million acres and thousands of structures, following the $12 billion in losses inflicted by fires in 2017.

The Sleepy Hollow and Chelan Complex blazes demolished the kind of magical thinking that persuades communities ravaged by wildfires across the West to rebuild and even expand with apparent disregard for future calamities.

Residents in Wenatchee and Chelan instead advocated for stronger fire prevention measures, and within months, officials in both towns enlisted the help of Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW). The national program, funded by the US Forest Service and private foundations, has provided support to more than two dozen cities to devise land use policies that lower wildfire risks, including San Diego and Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Much of the work involves taming residential, commercial, and industrial growth in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), areas where development meets nature and where the potential for fire runs highest. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of new homes built within or bordering wildlands nationwide soared by 12.6 million to more than 43 million. During the same span, the WUI swelled by 47 million acres to 190 million acres, or about 10 percent of the continental United States.

The efforts of Wenatchee and Chelan to corral growth yielded an added benefit. Officials in Chelan County, which includes both cities, consulted with CPAW to discuss adopting a land use code to regulate wildfire building and safety standards across the entire county. The ripple effect shows the need for urgency after flames are doused, explains Mike Burnett, a district fire chief with the county.

“When there’s a disaster or close call that brings the awareness of fire danger right to the forefront of people’s minds, you have to capture the momentum if you want change to happen,” he says. “If you wait, memories fade, attention spans shrink, and communities remain at greater risk.”

Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times/AP
A utility crew sets out to replace cable that was destroyed inside the Broadview neighborhood by fire in Wenatchee, Wash., in 2015. After the Sleepy Hollow fire destroyed about 30 homes, Wenatchee and the surrounding county created land-use policies to protect against future blazes.

‘A teachable moment’

A light rainfall on the morning after the Sleepy Hollow fire began aided firefighters and spared Wenatchee further ruin. Paul Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist with the Forest Service and wildfire expert who lives in the town of 34,000 people, recalls the sense of relief and disbelief among residents at nature’s sudden turn of kindness.

“We just got lucky. We weren’t clever,” says Mr. Hessburg, who travels the country giving a TED-style lecture called “The Era of Megafires” that explores fire in the age of climate change. “People understood that, so they came to the table wanting to talk about what could be done.”

Wenatchee adopted a WUI code in 2011 that imposed restrictions on housing in undeveloped areas bordering natural vegetation. But the guidelines applied only to new homes, and the Sleepy Hollow blaze incinerated older houses along the city’s edge that lacked fire-resistant roofs, eaves, and exterior walls. High winds carried embers from burning homes that ignited fruit-packing warehouses in downtown more than a mile away.

The fire’s behavior exposed flaws in Wenatchee’s readiness strategy, and residents voiced strong support for upgrading policies to prevent a recurrence. Officials worked with CPAW to fortify the WUI code for existing and new housing, create a wildfire risk map, and integrate wildfire safety measures into the city’s comprehensive plan.

“The fire was a teachable moment, and it was evident we needed to do some things differently,” Mr. Burnett says. “We owed that to the community, and they wanted to know what could be done.”

The Sleepy Hollow blaze occurred near the start of Washington’s largest wildfire season on record. The Chelan Complex fire arrived six weeks later, and alarmed by its swath of destruction, residents urged city planners to curb future housing projects on a 2,000-foot-tall butte that looms above Chelan.

The lakeside town of 4,000 people relies on tourism to power its economy. Many feared that allowing developers to build high-density housing above the butte’s base would amount to inviting a wildfire to sweep down its face and into the city to level neighborhoods and the historic downtown.

Local officials sought CPAW’s guidance to establish a WUI code and wildfire protection plan to manage growth in vulnerable areas, and reacting to public concerns about increased fire risk, they nixed proposals for large-scale developments on the butte’s slope. Craig Gildroy, Chelan’s planning director, views the 2015 inferno as the firebreak between old and new attitudes on land use.

“People typically don’t want things to change and they don’t want the government telling them what to do,” he says. “So anytime you propose stricter regulations, you get pushback. But that didn’t happen this time. The fire was an eye-opener, and people want to protect the city.”

An ever-present risk

Wenatchee and Chelan lie in river valleys near the eastern foothills of the Cascade Range. The geography traps smoke from wildfires, and as several blazes burn across central Washington and the rest of the state this summer, ash smudges the skies above Chelan County.

Burnett has joined crews responding to a fire on national forestland northwest of Wenatchee that began July 28 with a lightning strike and since has blackened almost 40,000 acres. The haze offers acrid, inescapable evidence to residents of the proximity of the peril.

“We’ve had days this month where the visibility has been as low as a quarter-mile,” he says. “So even if people don’t have fresh memories of flames coming into the city, they’re always well aware we’re in a fire-prone area.”

The ubiquitous specter of fire, coupled with Wenatchee and Chelan working on WUI policies, prodded Chelan County officials to collaborate with CPAW advisers on conceiving a similar code for the county. The measure could restrict housing density in the interface, establish natural buffers between development and wilderness, and provide developers with a uniform set of wildfire building standards.

Molly Mowery, founder of Wildfire Planning International, a policy consulting firm based in Colorado, has assisted the county and both cities for CPAW. She describes the county’s entry into the program as essential to reducing the area’s wildfire risk by extending safety practices outside Wenatchee and Chelan.

“This process isn’t sexy and there isn’t a ‘wow’ solution,” she says. “But the county’s willingness to work with the cities and come up with a WUI code can have an impact on more people.”

Wildfire poses a threat to an estimated 6.7 million homes in the West, and federal agencies spent almost $3 billion fighting blazes last year. Yet compared with suppression efforts, little coordination exists within or between states on prevention planning, and while a national strategy for managing wildfires remains in limbo, local officials are left to heed their own instincts on growth.

California’s surging population in remote areas and limits on prescribed burns compound its wildfire crisis, and the state lacks a growth management law akin to Washington’s that requires cities and counties to adhere to land use guidelines. As climate change magnifies the number and intensity of wildfires, Hessburg suggests that the progress in Chelan County shows communities can find a path through the smoke.

“These fires are something we take absolutely seriously because they hit close to home,” he says. “We’re in a new era. We need to get real about the danger.”

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