In a bid to reduce the danger of a catastrophic wildfire, the Bingen City Council voted unanimously to move ahead with a wildfire protection plan.
James Hulbert, a White Salmon resident who is coordinating the plan, met with the council members on Nov. 1 to explain the plan, which is geared to help White Salmon as well as Bingen.
"The goal is to assess wildfire hazards in the communities, and to identify strategies to reduce the potential for wildfire that could damage property and endanger lives," Hulbert said. "We can't make the area fireproof, but we can get people prepared for when a fire does occur, so people will have a better chance of surviving and have their homes survive as well."
Hulbert brought a map to the meeting, with yellow pins that showed what he characterized as "high risk" areas.
"Mature trees and heavy brush underneath is a dangerous combination," he said. "That creates a ladder fuel type of situation, where fire can go from the ground into the crowns of trees."
Predictably, the area of most concern is the bluff zone, from State Route 14 up to the top of the bluff. In those areas, there is a combination of heavy fuel and a steep slope, in a region that is subject to strong winds and hot, dry conditions.
"Fire burns faster on steeper slopes," Hulbert explained. "It burns twice as fast on a 30 percent slope as opposed to level ground. And some of these slopes are much steeper than 30 percent."
Hulbert added that vegetation growth next to houses makes them harder to defend in the event of a fire, and he is working to inform and educate property owners about ways to reduce fire hazards.
"In some cases, there is not enough space to slow the fires and allow firefighters to get in and save the homes," Hulbert said. "And some homes have wood siding and cedar shake roofs. That's like tinder for starting fire on a home."
According to Hulbert only about five percent of the homes on the bluff have cleared enough growth from around their structures to make them relatively safe from wildfires.
"The most important thing is for people to take responsibility for their own home sites, to build a more defensible space," he said. "I hope we can move forward with individual efforts on the bluff homes."
One intriguing idea under consideration is to bring in a herd of goats and sheep to graze the bluff area.
"Manual work on the bluff is very dangerous. There is loose rock and a lot of poison oak," Hulbert said. "When I first heard about the plan to use goats, I thought it's not going to work. But it appears to be a very effective means to reduce ground cover."
Hulbert said they had sent in a grant application for $30,000 to use the animals over three or four years.
Members of the City Council were supportive of the wildfire protection plan.
Council member Terry Trantow said the threat of a major fire was real, and having a plan to reduce the risk was wise.
"I could see fire coming up the bluff, up Dry Creek, and up Burdoin Mountain without a lot of effort," Trantow said.
"We can involve the Boy Scouts and make it a community project," added council member Randy Anderson.
Mayor Brian Prigel said he supported the wildfire protection project.
"I certainly recommend it. It's a good plan," Prigel said.
The council voted 4-0 to approve the proposal.
The core team that served as an advisory planning committee to create the overall wildfire protection plan included representatives from the cities of White Salmon and Bingen; Klickitat County; Washington Department of Natural Resources; the U.S. Forest Service; local fire departments; and citizen volunteers.
The planning process began in the spring of 2004. If the necessary grants are forthcoming, brush-clearing projects could get under way next spring or summer.
Hulbert planned to present the wildfire protection plan to the White Salmon City Council on the evening of Nov. 3.