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Forest thinning kept brush fire small

Firefighters easily extinguished blaze started by property owner

A forest-thinning project helped contain a wildfire in northern Stevens County last month, preventing the blaze from spreading through a rural neighborhood, state officials said.

The May 6 blaze occurred about six miles north of Orient, Wash. The owner of a rental property was burning brush in an open fire in the yard and left when the fire was still smoldering, according to fire department accounts.

“The renter, who was inside, fell asleep watching TV. When he woke up, everything was ablaze,” said Herb Hippler, chief of Joint Fire District Ferry No. 3 and Stevens District No. 8.

The fire was spreading across an open field toward another residence. Firefighters responded to the renter’s 911 call and were able to contain the 1-acre blaze shortly after their arrival, Hippler said. Neither home was damaged in the fire.

Washington Department of Natural Resources officials credit a $200,000 fuels reduction project for keeping the fire burning close to the ground. State crews used a federal grant in 2010 to thin dense stands of pine trees and prune low-hanging branches from the remaining trees. The work occurred around 46 homes and 78 outbuildings in the Sand Creek area north of Orient. Slash from the project was chipped, so it wouldn’t become a fuels hazard.

The work “kept the fire low-intensity and easy to fight,” said Steve Harris, DNR’s landowner assistance manager in Colville.

Without the fuels reduction, the blaze could have spread to the tree crowns, creating a highly flammable and fast-burning fire, he said.

DNR’s fuels reduction projects are entered in a GPS database, where agency officials study whether the work was effective in reducing the acreage burned in future wildfires.

“We’ve spent a lot of money doing a lot of projects to protect our communities, so we want to know: Did fires occur in project areas, and if so, what kind of fire?” Harris said.

Hippler said most of the wildfires in his district occur in the wildland-urban interface, where rural residences butt up against forests. Three years ago, two homes were destroyed in the 800-acre Doyle Creek fire. That fire was caused by arcing power lines.

This is the time of the year to prepare for fire season, which typically peaks in August, Harris said. Rural landowners can protect themselves by creating a defensible space around their home and through thinning and pruning trees in their woodlots.