Choices We Make before the Fire by Janine Donoho

Harbinger from Canada

Harbinger from Canada

As the western part of the United States enters into desiccated autumn, we’re told that the official fire season has begun. In fact, fire season now begins nearly as soon as our shrunken snowpack melts. Once the native and invasive species of plants dries, we’re vulnerable to lightning strikes. Yet lightning causes only 10-20% of our wildfires. The other 80-90%? Human caused.

Slide Mountain near Washoe Valley

Slide Mountain near Washoe Valley

In the high Sierra Nevada Mountain range, where I spent my formative years, snowpack has declined for decades—more precipitously as we blow past the latest tipping points. That means wildfires in winter and early spring—the new normal. This aspect of climate change affects the western side of our continent from Alaska to Bolivia, excluding only the more tropical regions. For Okanogan County in Washington State, our wildfires began in late May this year with smoke plumes as harbingers.

Wildland wildfire in Nevada

Wildland wildfire in Nevada

Over a decade ago when we first moved here, Intrepid Guy, who grew up in Spokane, Washington, and I committed to fire proofing our home and property. We wanted no soft-bodied firefighter to stand between an inferno and our house. Our house perches where sagebrush steppe meets Ponderosa pine communities, landscapes that normally thrive with periodic fires. However, lowering water tables, beetle infestations, and fire suppression have reduced these communities’ resistance to wildfire damage. Here are the choices we made:

  • Fire-resistant fiber-cement siding (Hardy Board);
  • Metal roofing;
  • Lava rock mulch out 10 feet plus from the foundation;
  • Rock based circular driveway;
  • Islands of native and drought-resistant plantings with rock mulch and drip system hydration;
  • Native grasses and brush cut back at least 40 feet;
  • Lower branches of our Ponderosas and Douglas fir removed;
  • Predominantly metal structures versus wooden within 50 feet of the house; and,
  • Buried 1,750 gallon tank, topped off and better than spitting on a fire.
Firewise living

Firewise living

When the first wildfire threatened our home on July 4th seven years ago, it started within a quarter mile—bordering the steep slope leading to our home. Not good. Fire devours landscape uphill in its quest for oxygen.

Exemplary Department of Natural Resources (DNR) crews along with local volunteer departments aided by water and fire-retardant air drops limited this human caused wildfire to nine acres of non-fireproofed landscape. Trees crowned, wildlife fled or died, and I baked muffins, although not well, while brewing iced tea for the crews. The DNR incident manager designated our home as a safe house for sheltering firefighters. When we were told to evacuate, we did. We pay hefty fire insurance fees, keep important papers in a safe deposit box, and again, don’t choose to have a person stand between us and fire.

Flames through the trees

Flames through the trees

With this season’s injuries and deaths of Forest Service firefighters, the loss of 7 million acres—and counting—in the western United States, we all need to assess our part in these disasters. Beyond addressing human caused climate change, what else can we do to minimize the destructive force of wildfire?

When the fire bear comes over the mountain

When the fire bear comes over the mountain

When wildfire eats toward us, we take what’s most important: the living critters we’re responsible for and each other. The house and landscape? That’s just stuff.

What matters

What matters most

Wildfires & Smoke—A Study in Still Life by Janine Donoho

Washington State wildfires continue to devour our landscape with devastating effects to wildlife and human residents. We evacuated during level 3—returned to level 1 and severe smoke. Consider us relatively unscathed.

Those who valiantly fight these fires battle exhaustion and extreme hazardous conditions, even as three Forest Service people lost their lives and others are injured. Weeping as I write this.

Pictures speak the language best. Here’s the situation.

Wildfire map 8-21-2015 with 100 square miles burned since then.

Wildfire map 8-21-2015 with 100 square miles burned since then.

Wildfire at night

Wildfire at night

Smoke from space 8-23-1015

Smoke from space 8-23-1015

Valiant firefighters

Valiant firefighters

What a sunny day looks like today.

What a sunny day looks like

Trying not to inhale

Trying not to inhale

Our way out

Our way out

Subdued landscape

Subdued landscape

Acrid air

Acrid air & low visibility

Bunny grazing on groundcover in our driveway

Bunny grazing on groundcover in our driveway

When we can see Lake Osoyoos--2 days ago

When we can see Lake Osoyoos, it’s a lake of fire—2 days ago

Fawn with smoke in background

Fawn with smoke as backdrop.

Another flare up across the Canadian border--2 days ago.

Another flare up across the Canadian border—2 days ago

Too close for comfort on Hwy 97 near Tonasket.

Too close for comfort on Hwy 97 near Tonasket.

Rainbows in moderate smoke

Rainbows in moderate smoke—yesterday morning.

Where there’s smoke… by Janine Donoho

Coming over the hills

Coming over the hills

Not a thing of beauty

Not a thing of beauty

We had a week—a level 3 evacuation due to wildfire pushed by strong south winds. Level 3 means danger currently affects your area or is imminent, and you need to leave immediately. As fire lines closed in on our Hardy Board home with its metal roof and defensible space, we hit the road. No house is worth a soft body standing between you and the inferno.

Air drop within reach of our home

Air drop within reach of our home

Undone by kindness, first at Osoyoos Lake Veteran’s Memorial Park, where they offered overnight space for our trailer and truck in a day use area, then the next day, when Atkins Harvest Foods responded with baked goods for distribution to fire fighters—gratis. We distributed goodies to BLM, DNR, and Forest Service crews along with local contractors, then took what was left to our local high school, the 9 Mile Fire incident headquarters.

Too close

Too close

At this point, 4675 acres have burned with two homes lost, 30+ buildings destroyed, and the fire’s 50% contained with too many hotspots to count. With parched sagebrush steppe and Ponderosa forest communities untouched, there’s still plenty of fuel to act as tinder for ongoing high winds, lightning strikes, and stupid/malicious humans. The latter ignited this conflagration.

So, on-on.

What does firewise mean to you? Have you changed your landscape to minimize wildfire damage?

Line of approaching flame

Line of approaching flame

Fire line within reach of home

Fire line within reach of home

Our burning Wildlife Sanctuary

Our burning Wildlife Sanctuary

A forest lost

A forest lost

Pines burning from the inside out

Pines burning from the inside out

Stunned wildlife take refuge wherever they can

Stunned wildlife take refuge wherever they can

Wildfire in context

Wildfire in context

Soundings, Water Elemental

LaunchFebruary 27th, 2015
The big day is here.

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