‘The entire west is burning’

With a worst-ever wildfire season feared this year, here’s what residents should know to keep safe

PORT ORCHARD — Burning hot and fast, 2021 has already outpaced prior years in the number of wildfires raging across the state.

With dry, hot weather not usually seen until August, there are currently 10 large fires burning across the state. This doesn’t include the seasonal fires on a smaller scale that are responded to and mitigated, said Janet Pearce, communications manager for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

In July alone, DNR responded to 200 fires in the state. That doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the season. Along with the rest of the state, Kitsap County is proactively working to prevent and mitigate wildfires.

“We are really concerned with the wildland season,” said South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Jeff Faucett.

On July 14, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statewide drought declaration. With no precipitation predicted in the 7-day forecast, the drier than normal conditions continue to be a concern for wildfire danger. According to the US Drought Monitor, Kitsap County is being classified as “abnormally dry” as of July 20.

On the west side of the state, Pearce said the different fuel loads, such as trees and undergrowth, means a fire could quickly spread by burning through these resources. As suspected, these factors mean a worsening wildfire season is likely as the summer goes on.

SKFR and other fire districts in the county have specially trained wildland firefighters who can be sent to other wildfires across the region to assist in the fight, as well as to manage fires in their own districts. SKFR does not currently have any of their crew deployed in other areas, Faucett said. If the district does send out employees, the fire chief said he won’t send out all of his resources. The need at home is too great.

When wildfires begin to overflow firefighting resources, it’s all hands on deck. DNR will pull in partners from as far as Australia to assist on the ground, Pearce said.

While SKFR has 15 specially trained staff for wildland firefighting, Faucett said all SKFR career and volunteer firefighters have received training should they be needed to join the fight.

The increase in wildfires is a noticeable and troubling trend, Faucett said. Over the past seven or so years, he has seen an increase in wildfire smoke in the area. “I don’t think any of us can deny that [wildfires have gotten worse,]” Faucett said.

Pearce said only a small minority of residents in Western Washington had air conditioning installed in their homes. Now, however, it’s becoming a near-necessity. Hotter-than-usual temperatures in the region not only make for an uncomfortable summer, but they also contribute to the wildfire problem.

Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief John Oliver gave a presentation on July 15 about how residents can respond to wildfires in the area. As the region experiences more and bigger wildfires, Oliver said residents must be ready to jump into action in case fire crews are unable to respond.

One memory trick residents can use for responding to a fire is “Ready, Set, Go.” In the “ready” step, residents should have an evacuation plan and checklist of supplies, such as portable phone chargers and fire extinguishers for small fires, and know where to shut off the gas and electricity, Oliver said.

“Set” means that once there is a fire in the area, residents should gather all flammable items and bring them inside their home or garage space, connect the garden hoses and leave ladders near their home for firefighters to use. Exterior lights should be left on for better visibility and a vehicle should be packed with an emergency kit inside, parked near an exit, the chief said.

Finally, residents should leave when they feel threatened, even if an evacuation order has yet to be issued.

Both Oliver and Faucett said that having defensible space around the home is vital so that fire can’t quickly spread to your house. Gutters need to be cleared of brush and debris. To date, 247 fires in the state this year were fed by debris, according to the DNR’s fire information website.

While the county starts taking a defensive posture to address potential fires, smoke from fires across the region can affect your health. Faucett said when smoky conditions worsen, calls to 911 by people with respiratory issues increase.

At the moment, Pearce said, smoke from wildfires is staying mostly on the east side of the state because the marine onshore flow has kept the air clearer on the west side. Just where the smoke goes depends on the wind. But that can change in an instant, darkening skies and making the air unsafe to breathe.

Chemicals and gases mixed in the smoke clouds pose a risk to residents, according to Dr. Peter Barkett, an internal medicine physician at the Kaiser Permanente Silverdale clinic. The particulates in the smoke are especially dangerous to those with asthma, allergies and cardiovascular conditions. Barkett recommends people stay inside with doors and windows closed when there is smoke in the area.

Kitsap County has been in a Phase 2 burn ban since July 10, which prohibits all outdoor recreational burning. However, barbecues that use natural gas or propane fuel are allowed and should be used on a non-combustible surface, according to the Kitsap County government’s burn ban information website. Residents can do their part to prevent wildfires by being cautious when disposing their cigarettes and avoiding having trailer chains drag on the highway, Faucett said.