Spokane Valley fire officials worry that debris left behind by last November’s ice storm and a wet spring could fuel a massive wildfire as hot, dry summer weather hits its stride.
Tall grass and a healthy bed of pine needles, broken branches, and fallen trees remain in several areas where homes sit among tall ponderosa pines.
Throw in high winds, and all of the ingredients - known in fire circles as “ladder fuel” - for a firestorm potentially worse than the 1991 blaze that swept through parts of the Valley are present, fire officials said.
“We’re looking forward to a busy August, September and maybe even October,” said Dan Stout, Fire District 8 chief.
In fact, October may be the worst month because it is often the windiest, fire officials said. High winds in October 1991 drove 93 separate fires sparked by downed power lines across 35,000 acres, mostly in Spokane County. Flames swallowed more than 100 homes and caused about $15 million worth of damage.
Neighborhoods in Newman Lake, Ponderosa and near Browne Mountain were the hardest hit in the Valley.
Before the 1991 wildfires, the amount of dry grass, pine needles and fallen branches were consistent with most years. Firefighters blamed the wind for spreading the blazes to the tree tops.
This year, the plethora of ladder fuel - combustible debris between the ground and trees - could easily spread wildfires to the trees without wind, said Pat Humphries, Spokane Valley Fire District 1 chief.
The wet spring also has left wild grasses taller than normal.
“It’s going to be a tinder box once a fire gets started,” Humphries said.
A recent small wildfire east of Liberty Lake offered Valley firefighters a glimpse at what’s ahead, Humphries said. The grass in the area was still a little green and not on fire, but the pine needles underneath were dry and burning, he said.
Advice on preventing wildfires ranges from sweeping pine needles off a home’s roof to trimming trees.
“If we can just get people to be alert, that’s half the battle,” Humphries said.
Stout said most wildfires start because of carelessness.
“If we can eliminate the accidental fires by the citizen, that’s a major portion of” preventing wildfires, Stout said.
Humphries worries dry lightning storms that recently have moved through the area will become more dangerous as the summer goes on and could spark a wildfire.
Even wildfires started by lightning strikes and other natural events can be contained by an alert and prepared homeowner before they spread, he said.
“If you help us ahead of time it’s a lot better than helping us firefight,” Humphries said.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Preventing wildfires Fire officials offer these tips to reduce the risk of wildfire property damage: Clear debris from a 30- to 50-foot defensible space around your house. Remove pine needles that blanket roofs and fill gutters, and clear them out of your yard. Stack firewood and other flammable material away from your house. Make sure your address is visible, especially at night.