Large wildfires bring out the superlatives, and not in a good way.
Most acres burned. Most homes destroyed. Most days until containment. Most firefighters on scene.
On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed the wildfires being fought across Washington as “unequaled” in state history.
The fire that raced through Malden was the most devastating to a community in recent history, incinerating 80% of the town of about 200 people, taking some 103 homes, the post office, town hall and fire station.
Last week alone, three times more Washington acres burned than all of 2019, and in the last decade only 2015 had more acres scorched than the state currently has.
And it’s only mid September. Devastating fires can strike later in the fall, like Spokane’s 1991 Fire Storm, which destroyed 114 homes and some 36,000 acres on October 16.
Fire officials said it would be hard to find a level of fire destruction to a single community comparable to Malden in recent history. Most of the Hangman Hills subdivision south of Spokane was devastated in 1987 when a fire destroyed 22 homes, they noted.
The famed Big Burn of August 1910 scorched 3 million acres in North Idaho and Western Montana, with incursions into Eastern Washington and southern British Columbia. For much of state history, the largest fire on record was the Yacolt Burn of 1902, which quickly consumed nearly 239,000 acres, killed 38 people and destroyed an unrecorded number of homes and farmhouses in mostly rural timberlands north of the Columbia River. The town of Yacolt, which gave its name to the fire, was spared when the wind shifted.
The size of that blaze for a single wildfire wasn’t eclipsed until July 2014, when four separate blazes grew into one called the Carlton Complex Fire and consumed slightly more than 256,000 acres and destroyed 353 homes. Pateros lost 40 homes and other cities on the Methow Valley sustained damage, but none were torched to the extent of Malden.
A year later, the Okanogan Complex fire in August and September was originally thought to have set a new record at nearly 305,000 acres. But not all of the individual fires that were expected to burn together did. It was later knocked from the top of the list and officially recorded at about 145,000 acres, with the nearby Tunk Block fire at just under 166,000 acres.
But the Okanogan Complex claimed the lives of three firefighters and put another in the hospital and destroyed 35 homes. In 2015 large fires blazed throughout the state, setting the mark for the most land burned at 1,338,000 acres.
Like the fire that burned across northern Whitman County and consumed most of Malden, many devour more grasslands and brush rather than timber when they burn across southeastern Washington. The School Canyon Fire in August 2005 burned about 50,000 acres in Columbia and Garfield counties and destroyed 109 homes.
Protecting homes and communities from those grassland fires has many of the same aspects as protecting them in timber areas, said Allen Levovitz, wildland fire liaison for the Department of Natural Resources.
Homeowners and local officials need to develop “defensible” spaces, managing the highly combustible materials near structures like dry grass and brush.
They should consider building fire lines, areas that don’t have something to burn, or irrigated pastures or crops that have been kept hydrated so they have low fuel content.
They should also have an evacuation plan that clearly spells out when to leave if a fire gets to a certain point and where to go, as well as a plan for firefighters that identifies the best location to suppress a fire, with adequate ways in and out.
“It takes money. It takes time. And it takes people to put in the time to do it,” Levovitz said.
It’s not possible to know whether such a plan would have lessened the impact on Malden and the especially intense fire the community faced on Labor Day, he added.
“Sometimes, there’s not really a lot you can do,” Levovitz said.
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