Fifteen years ago, when a wind-driven wildfire spread to within a block of his home, Chuck Hafner knew he’d gotten lucky.
The 74-year-old retired school principal watched the 1991 wildfire – part of what became known locally as “Firestorm ‘91” – sweep through the Ponderosa neighborhood south of Spokane Valley. Cedar-shingle roofs exploded in flames, fire hopped through stands of pine and fir and a dozen homes were lost there.
When the smoke had cleared, Hafner got busy. Using his own money, he removed a dozen trees from his yard. He replaced his cedar roof with a fire-resistant composite and added emergency supplies to his home. But he remains wary.
“They said then that it would never happen, and it did,” Hafner said.
Wildfires have become emblematic of the American West’s worst natural disaster, akin to hurricanes on the Gulf Coast or tornadoes on the plains of the Midwest. In the aftermath of a devastating fire season in 2000, clearing brush and removing trees became a rite of spring in the West, and the federal government poured billions of dollars into its national fire plan.
But in recent years, the federal government’s $2.7 billion fire plan has become more selective about which homes qualify for financial assistance, keying on high-risk communities at the edge of wilderness. With the housing boom pushing more homes into forested areas and a wet spring fueling grass growth, fire experts are closely monitoring thousands of homes that may be at risk this summer.
Some dense, new developments have actually helped by adding roads that serve as firebreaks, said Capt. Jon Sprague, wildland fire training coordinator for the Spokane Valley Fire Department.
Isolated homes are more likely to be at risk, Sprague said. The Fire Department recently mapped 990 homes bordering woods; more than half did not have a “defensible space” that allowed firefighters room to maneuver in case of a fire.
“There are some places we just aren’t going to be able to get to if we have to prioritize,” Sprague said. “If I have to choose, the goal is to try to save as many houses as possible.”
Fire experts have urged homeowners to prepare their homes – sometimes at their own expense.
The Inland Northwest chapter of the American Red Cross has worked with homeowners to clean up around their property to prevent catastrophic wildfire. The chapter said it may not be able to rely on national resources, which were severely stretched last year by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
“What we saw post-Katrina is that all of the resources across the country were being diverted to that disaster,” said Abi Weaver, spokeswoman for the local chapter. “It’s up to the local chapters to increase their readiness.”
In Eastern Washington and North Idaho, where thousands of homes have already been treated, money for fuel reduction has steadily declined in recent years.
“Our problem is limited dollars,” said Bill Wilburn, executive director of FireSafe Spokane, an education and consulting group. “There are more people looking for the dollars and the dollars are declining.”
Steve Harris, fire prevention coordinator with Washington’s Department of Natural Resources, said funds remain for high-risk homes.
“The funding’s definitely started to ratchet down,” said Harris, whose agency has worked with more than 3,000 landowners in northeastern Washington. After the initial treatment, the agency requires that homeowners maintain the property themselves.
“You have to stay on top of it,” Harris said. “Within a couple years, you can have these fire hazards return.”
As sprawling suburbs in the Pacific Northwest spread farther into forested areas in the last decade, fuel-treatment plans – funded with both public and private money – offered worried homeowners some solace.
“You can be proactive in the case of wildfire, instead of waiting around to squirt water on the ashes of your cherished possessions,” said Larry Isenberg, president of Synergistic Solutions Inc., which holds fuel-reduction contracts with three counties in North Idaho.
Despite the best preparation, variables such as lightning strikes, dry, hot weather and human activity can lead to spikes in fires, experts say.
Last summer, the number of fires was about half the average in the 1980s and ‘90s. However, last year’s fires burned more acres than at any time in the past 45 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. A significant portion of those burned acres were in the southern United States, where grass fires burned expansive areas, an agency official said.
This spring, heavy rains have led to thick growth in grasslands that may dry out quickly, raising the risk of fire, the agency said this month. Federal analysts said they anticipate an “above-normal” fire danger.
Fire officials said dry weather could quickly turn the grass into tinder.
That was the case in 1991, when the Inland Northwest went 42 days without rain. On Oct. 16, winds that reached 60 mph drove dozens of fires in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
The results were devastating: 120 homes destroyed. Nearly $20 million in property damage. Two people dead, and hundreds more in shelters.
“We lost almost everything,” said Ron Connell, 63, whose Ponderosa neighborhood home was destroyed in the fire. “We ended up with the cars we were driving and the clothes we were wearing.”
The 1991 Firestorm led many homeowners living near forests to renovate their homes to reduce the fire risk.
Connell and his wife rebuilt, using a composite roof and fire-resistant siding. They removed more than two dozen large trees and established green spaces around their home.
From his porch, Connell has watched moose, elk and deer move across the hillside – the views that lured him to the semirural neighborhood in the 1970s.
“You just don’t get that in the city,” he said.
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