Kittitas County prepares for wildfire season


Wayne Gray

Kittitas County Fire and Rescue host informative events about wildfire prevention.

Wayne Gray, Staff Reporter

Development and mismanaged private properties are a primary contributor to the effects of wildfires in Kittitas County, according to Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue (KVFR) Chief John Sinclair. 

Sinclair said Kittitas County will continue to experience severe wildfires due to human interactions with the landscape, but communities can limit fire frequency and damages by properly managing lands.

“You either manage the forest, or mother nature does,” Sinclair said. “Mother nature only has one tool, and that’s fire.”

At a community education event hosted by KVFR on May 8 at Station 2-9, fire management personnel discussed the primary causes of wildfires and how to prevent them. 

At the event, Sinclair referred to the intersection of human development, nature and the interactions that occur because of it as the Wildland Urban Interface. Sinclair said humans are the primary cause of fires, and as Kittitas County continues to grow, so will the risk of large scale fires. 

“There’s a confluence of events happening,” Sinclair said.

Sinclair said past fire management efforts adopted an approach that called for every fire to be extinguished rather than controlled, and that approach has resulted in an “overstock” of dry, dead growth that would have otherwise burned away.

“We took an approach that we put out every fire,” Sinclair said. “We weren’t doing enough prescriptive burns.”

Sinclair said in overgrown areas, fires can be caused by common roadway hazards such as sparks from unsecured chains dragging on pavement or auto accidents if roadside brush isn’t cleared away. 

According to Sinclair, all of these factors have been made worse by climate change and are contributing to wildfires in an unprecedented way.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have fires like we do now,” Sinclair said. “It used to be that a fire of 1,000 acres was a big fire and now we’re getting 100,000 acre fires, 20,000 acre fires, 10,000 acre fires.” 

According to Deputy Chief Rich Elliott the shrub-steppe and grasslands are problem areas for fires. Elliot’s claims align with CWU Professor Megan Walsh’s statements in “CWU professor says invasive grasses and wildfires are a growing problem for Washington ecosystems.” 

Walsh said the proliferation of invasive grasses contributes to a fire cycle, the effects of which grow worse after each fire, destroying native plant growth and increasing the risk of wildfires in Kittitas County.

Fire Management Officers Spencer Slyfield and Court Martin from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) said they often encounter properties that either have large areas of brush or dead standing trees. 

Slyfield said properties in Northern Kittitas County face unique risks due to their rural location, often narrow access roads and close proximity to forests. Slyfield said fires that occur at rural properties, while seemingly isolated, put more populated areas at risk as well.

“You could get ember showers a mile away,” Slyfield said.

Slyfield and Martin said the narrow access roads, preferred by many rural property owners, may provide security but constrain fire response efforts. 

Martin said other concerns for firefighters are gated communities, especially those that don’t have procedures in place to allow access for emergency vehicles.

“Gated communities are becoming a larger and larger problem,” Martin said.

According to Sinclair, property owners in Kittitas County that live elsewhere are problematic because maintaining fire safety year-round and establishing communication with property owners in the event of a fire can prove difficult. 

“There’s a lot more that we can be doing as humans to lessen the fire problem, especially as it relates to in and around homes,” Sinclair said.

Martin said even when property owners make efforts to maintain fire safety by trimming back brush and dead trees, they create a larger fire risk if they don’t properly dispose of the trimmings. Slyfield said that most property owners comply with requests to clear away fire dangers.

“More often than not, land owners are willing,” Slyfield said. “We’re there to educate and help them out.”

Sinclair, Slyfield and Martin said the event was one of many, with hopes to host more like it as wildfire season approaches.