Growing sprawl in WA woods comes with high wildfire risk

Planning around risk

In 2021, the state Department of Natural Resources developed a map of regions that are considered interface areas to gain a better understanding of where new properties are being developed.

Ashley Blazina Cooper, the department’s environmental justice and Western Washington forest health planner, said identifying these properties helps the state formulate a plan to protect these communities.

“Folks need to be aware of where the WUI is occurring and how that changes what can actually be built in that environment,” Cooper said.

Also in 2021, the Washington State Building Code Council, an advisory state agency, began considering proposals for a WUI Code, which it hopes to implement next year. According to Cooper, the map she helped develop will define which areas are affected by the new regulations.

Current proposals being considered aim to enforce defensible-space requirements around houses where no burnable vegetation can grow, or adding construction requirements like noncombustible materials for the exteriors of homes.

When Holman tried to get Flowery Trail added to a Stevens County fire district, he said the fire department’s representatives were reluctant. Back then, the neighborhood’s forests were thick and the community had too many fire risks, like fallen trees.

After five years of fuel-reduction programs and significant help from the Department of Natural Resources, Holman said Flowery Trail finally joined Stevens County Fire District 4 around 2014. The coverage they received is conditional and renews yearly.

“The contract states that we must maintain ‘home hardiness’ — which is clearing all the burnables away from your home or your cabin,” Holman said.

Meanwhile, in the state House of Representatives, House Bill 1099 seeks to add a climate aspect to the state’s Growth Management Act. It would recommend reducing new growth in the wildland-urban interface area while developing buffer zones and wildfire preparation measures to protect existing residential areas in those regions.

Rep. Davina Duerr, D-Bothell, the bill’s primary sponsor, said climate resilience must be added to the growth act to effectively manage urban sprawl.

“The point of the bill is that we need to be smart about how we develop and where we develop,” Duerr said.

The bill failed to pass the past two legislative sessions. She said she plans to reintroduce it next session and is hopeful for its outcome.

According to Duerr, the bill’s most vocal supporters were firefighters, who are frequently called to areas farther away from their departments to fight fires. For Duerr, mitigating sprawl with HB 1099 means reducing pressures to expand and maintain infrastructure like roads and fire services.

But for people already living in these communities, access to those services is already in high demand.

Patty O’Hearn, like Holman, is retired. She owns about 40 acres of forested property in Kittitas County, on the eastern slope of the Cascades, and she said she surveys her property nearly every day in search of trees that need to be thinned or brush that needs removal.

Over the years, O’Hearn has acquired a chipper, some chainsaws, even a brush mower—but she knows that not everyone can afford to do that.

“Some of my neighbors don’t have the funds or the equipment, or their property is such that they need people who know what they’re doing to come in and do handwork,” O’Hearn said.

Mitigating wildfires gets even more complicated when renters come into the picture. Katie Fields, community program manager at the Washington Environmental Council, a policy advocacy group, said farmworkers and other people who rent generally have fewer resources and more limitations on what they can do.

“Removing vegetation, changing building materials and things like that aren’t really accessible inherently to renters,” Fields said.

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