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Saving Homes From Fire

Editorial for Nov. 5, 2009

The programs come under different names, but the "hazard fuel" reduction initiatives being carried out in White Salmon, Bingen, Underwood, and elsewhere around the Columbia River Gorge are very smart investments.

In the event of a wildfire, the relatively simple act of clearing most of the trees and brush from the areas nearest your house can save it from going up in flames. As fire races up a slope, it climbs swiftly as long as it has handy fuel to burn -- hence the phrase "ladder fuels." By removing a swath of that fuel, when the fire reaches a certain point, it will slow dramatically -- hopefully enough that the house in its path can survive.

Locally, the two most visible programs coordinating these fire risk reduction projects fall under the names "Firewise Communities" and "Community Wildfire Protection Plan." The idea behind these efforts is to remove most of the small trees and heavy underbrush that often go right up to the houses, particularly those on the bluff in White Salmon.

Last week, we toured the area around some of the bluff homes that have been having this brush reduction work done, and what a difference it makes. In one location, the oak trees go up virtually to the porch of some houses. In the event of a wildfire, flying sparks and debris and intense heat would be carried literally to that structure's doorstep, increasing the likelihood of a fire damaging or destroying the home. But the houses next door, after brush removal work, had a 75-foot buffer zone below their decks -- enough to essentially stop the uphill run of the fire.

This is a wise investment, because the White Salmon bluff area has been characterized by the Washington Department of Natural Resources as having a "high risk of extreme fire danger."

The U.S. Forest Service is among the agencies that have provided grants for the "defensible space" program in our community. In 2009, a total of $122,000 was provide for White Salmon and Bingen. According to Jim Hulbert, a White Salmon resident who has been working on the community's Wildfire Protection Plan over the past several years, $15,000 of that money has been spent so far, and about 10 homes have been provided with a buffer. Another half-dozen homeowners have signed up for the clearing work.

The funds in this particular Forest Service grant are available until the end of 2011, or until they are used up. The grants pay about 50 percent of the cost to remove the brush around houses in high fire risk situations, and that's a great deal.

Here are two numbers to call to learn more about these fire fuel reduction programs and to sign up. For the Firewise Communities program, coordinated through the Underwood Conservation District office in White Salmon, call Tova Cochrane at 493-1936.

For the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, call program coordinator Jim Hulbert at 493-3863.

Anyone who owns a home that is surrounded by dense trees and brush -- it doesn't have to be a bluff home -- would be wise to take advantage of this program before the current funds are used up.

JB

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