By JESSE BURKHARDT
All the hard work of planning ways to reduce wildfire dangers to the local community over the last several years has now paid off -- literally.
Last week, White Salmon resident Jim Hulbert announced that the U.S. Forest Service has approved a National Fire Plan Grant for Bingen and White Salmon. The federal grant provides $122,336 for the cities of White Salmon and Bingen to fund a "hazard fuel reduction and defensible space project" to help the two cities prepare strategies for reducing wildfire risks.
Hulbert, the project administrator, has been involved in the local area's Community Wildfire Protection Plan since it kicked off with a series of planning meetings in 2004.
"We're in a vulnerable situation and we're going to have fires," Hulbert explained.
The Bingen-White Salmon area covered by the grant is classified by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as having a "high risk for extreme fire danger."
Specifically, the grant is geared to: "reduce hazard fuels and to create better defensible spaces around residential structures."
The research that went into the Community Wildfire Protection Plan revealed that a high proportion of homes within the project area have "moderate to high" levels of hazardous fuels in close proximity, making them more difficult to defend from wildfires.
"The best thing we can do is help people create a defensible space around their homes," Hulbert said.
The DNR considered the following in considering the fire risk to the local community:
Fuels: More than one-third of the area (825 acres) covered in the planning area is classed as forest with a heavy fuel load ... underbrush consisting of blackberry, poison oak, and other brush is often thick, providing a ladder fuel effect that would help fire reach into the crowns of larger trees;
Slope: 35 percent of the area has slopes of 30 percent or greater, and these areas all have heavy fuel loads. Fire spreads faster on steep slopes ... Many homes are situated at the top of these steep slopes;
Aspect/climate/wind: The area is entirely on a south-facing slope and is prone to frequent and strong westerly winds and hot/dry conditions from mid-April to mid-October. These conditions can result in explosive wildfire behavior.
The federal money will be available to Bingen and White Salmon until Dec. 31, 2011.
According to Hulbert, the way the program works is that homeowners participating in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan would sign an agreement regarding what type of brush-clearing work needs to be done, and when a contractor completes the task, homeowners would be reimbursed 50 percent of the costs. If property owners choose to do the work themselves, they would be reimbursed 50 percent of an hourly rate set by the program's sponsors.
Among the actions proposed to significantly reduce the threat of wildfire destroying homes are the following: pruning branches on lower levels of trees; removing live and dead tree branches from within 10-15 feet of a chimney; removing dead trees; removing or trimming tall brush and grass; thinning of live trees to create space between them with a goal of having between 10-20 feet between the crowns of these trees; locating firewood and scrap wood piles at least 30 feet from any structure; cleaning flammable material within 10 feet of these woodpiles; removal of trees and brush along access roads to allow clearance for emergency vehicles; and removal of trees/branches near power lines.
Hulbert said any homeowners interested in the program can call him at (509) 493-3863.
"I'm guessing we'll have a pretty good response," Hulbert said.
Hulbert pointed out that the lack of a local brush-chipping site has made creating a defensible space around area homes a bit more difficult, as there is currently no place available in Bingen or White Salmon to take brush or tree limbs for disposal.
For that reason, Hulbert said it was possible some of the federal funds could go to pay for a contractor to efficiently dispose of the woody debris generated by brush removal efforts.
"I'm not opposed to designating some of the money to go to a brush-grinding site," Hulbert said.