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Serving: West

Universities prepare West for another big wildfire season

Oregon Department of Forestry WFP-ODF-wildfires.jpg
The Douglas Complex Fire burns in Oregon in July 2013.
This year’s wet, warm winter could contribute to yet another round of destructive blazes, experts say.

The West Coast's land-grant universities are holding webinars, conducting community meetings and publishing booklets to urge urban and rural residents to start preparing now for what could be another devastating wildfire season.

Fire experts say this year’s wet, warm winter could contribute to yet another round of destruction this summer and fall, and scientists from Oregon State University, Washington State University and the University of California are teaching landowners about fuel-load management, resilient landscaping and how to plan for emergencies.

OSU on March 17 launched a "Wildfire Wednesdays" webinar series that will continue every two weeks through mid-June. Experts from the university's Forestry and Natural Resources Program kicked off the series with an introduction to fire risk, community preparedness and knowing resources.

"This series aims to address preparedness at three levels -- the individual, the community and the landscape," Extension Fire Program manager Carrie Berger told webinar attendees. "It's what you can do now to get your family and your home ready and to promote fire-safe communities."

Each of the upcoming webinars -- on March 31, April 14, April 28, May 19, June 2 and June 16 -- will introduce core ideas and list things that families and communities can do before every wildfire season, Berger said. In addition, OSU will host other online sessions with information specific to local areas, she said.

Now is the last chance

Washington State University Extension foresters are telling rural residents that now is the season's last chance to prevent and prepare for wildfires. Half of Washington state is forested, and roughly 15% of that land is in the hands of more than 200,000 forest-owning families, extension advisers say.

On March 23, the university will team with the state Department of Natural Resources to host Wildfire 101: Mitigation and Planning, which officials say will help rural home- and forest owners learn about basic wildfire behavior, forest fuel management, resilient landscaping, emergency planning, community action, and the home ignition zone.

The webinar will feature a landowner whose property partially burned in the 2014 Rising Eagle Road fire, university officials say.

“With current forest fuel conditions from years of fire suppression, and weather and drought events due to climate change, it’s more a question of when, not if, a wildfire will come through your property,” said Sean Alexander, a WSU Extension forester in northeastern Washington. “In worst-case scenarios, such as the 2020 Labor Day fires fueled by intense wind, emergency planning and a community response is the best and sometimes only course of action.”

In California, the UC's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources urged forestland owners to do controlled burns in the winter months to control fuels, and its scientists teamed with the University of Nevada, Reno to produce a booklet with step-by-step instructions on retrofitting an existing home to be more resilient to fire.

Coauthor Susie Kocher, a UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor, said some homeowners feel powerless to protect their homes against the West's increasing wildfire threat.

“I'm happy to tell them that's not true," said Kocher, who lives in a forested area near Lake Tahoe. "There are specific actions that we can all take to reduce the likelihood of our homes being burned in wildfire. We need to educate ourselves on the details of home construction that make homes less vulnerable to ignition.”

Devastating 2020 season

The efforts come after the West suffered one of the worst wildfire seasons in history in 2020, as more than 100 blazes in August and September burned more than 8 million acres, destroyed 13,887 buildings and killed 46 people, including 32 in California, according to state and federal authorities.

The more than 67,000-acre Glass Fire in early autumn wrought devastation in the heart of Northern California’s iconic wine country, damaging or destroying nearly 30 wineries while affecting as many as 80% of Napa Valley vineyards and causing industry losses approaching $500 million, according to published estimates. More than half the Napa Valley’s grapes are cabernet, a high-value wine, and many of those grapes were still on the vine when the Glass Fire started.

While it's difficult to imagine raging wildfires while the West's mountain peaks are still capped with deep snow, forecasters say wet, warm winters like this one produce less snowmelt while increasing the fuel loads that pose a severe fire danger in the summer and fall.

"Hotter, drier summers produce more lightning and higher wind speeds," Amanda Rau, an OSU fire specialist for the Willamette Valley and North Cascades service area, said during the March 17 webinar. "We know this is a real contributor to wildfire risk."

Rau and other scientists caution that climate change could lead to more severe fire seasons, increasing the need for landowners to prepare.

"Duringn the 1970s, fire season was about four months long," Rau said. "Now it's seven months or more."

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