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Preparing for Wildfire in Puget Sound

The possibility that a large wildfire could occur in the forests on the highly urbanized west side of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains is currently a remote, but real, possibility that grows every year as the region’s population increases, and our climate changes.  

Partially spurred by California’s recent and tragic Camp Fire, which claimed 86 lives, the Puget Sound Climate Preparedness Collaborative along with ISC, the Tulalip Tribes, University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group (CIG), and the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center convened 100 of the region’s scientists, local and tribal government representatives, and other wildfire and forest management experts from state and federal agencies on Tulalip tribal land. The day-long event was covered by Snohomish County’s Daily Herald.

It was a long-awaited conversation where practitioners could discuss key wildfire issues:

  • What can communities and organizations be doing now and going forward to address the potential for wildfire?
  • How can communities and agencies balance the ecological value of fire with the need to protect communities and infrastructure?
  • What do we need to know, and how can we better inform the public of these risks?

A Growing Risk

Over the last 100 years, a strict state policy of fire suppression has limited the number of fires on the Cascades’ west side, but that very suppression contributes to the risk of much larger wildfires in the future. While the west side’s cooler, rainier, and wetter climate has largely insulated the region from fires, the risk remains – particularly when changes in climate are factored in, which in recent years, have meant drier and hotter summer conditions. Not unlike the Santa Ana winds of California, warmer winds originating east of the Cascades may be a wildcard factor in the future, but more research is needed to know how these eastern winds will truly impact the west side.

Josh Halofsky, of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, also observed that humans have been responsible for nearly all wildfire ignitions in the past 40 years, and it stands to reason that with steady population growth, the likelihood of such ignitions also increases. Tulalip Tribes’ Fish and Wildlife Manager Jason Gobin, added that in addition to increased ignitions, as the landscape quickly changes from one that is wooded and rural to commercially and residentially developed, more and more people will be exposed to smoke and wildfires.

Improving Emergency Preparedness via Community Awareness

Morning panelist Cody Watson, of Seattle City Light, understood that an evacuation plan was simply not sufficient, so he worked with City Light staff to engage the public with humor by producing a a 10-minute safety video, entitled Escape from Diablo.

Other morning speakers, Chuck Turley of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and Todd Rankin from Olympic National Park, agreed that community engagement and education, along with planning and collaboration with insurance companies and utilities are essential elements to helping communities prepare, adapt, and co-exist with a growing fire threat.

Collaboration for Adaptation

Ultimately, when local jurisdictions, tribes, and agencies come together through multi-scale networks such as Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, they are better able to share challenges, successes, and strategies and can deepen the connections between these stakeholders, creating a safe place for everyone to learn.

On federal land, where suppression policies are less stringent, and in tribally-owned forests where indigenous communities such as the Tulalip have been safely and sustainably managing the land through the use of fire, officials and scientists are experimenting with prescribed burns, pruning, and selective thinning.

These networks and partnerships are examples of how jurisdictions, agencies, and sovereign tribal nations can work together, share their perspectives and approach the issues with a more holistic approach that balances both the ecology and the social needs of the region.

Early Recognition and Planning is Critical

Recognizing the potential for increased risk, and planning for it while the risk of wildfire remains relatively low means increased likelihood for positive adaptation outcomes. It means that communities can preserve the economic, environmental, and cultural elements that hold meaning to its members. One example of this is a recent partnership between the Tulalip Tribes and the United States Forest Service to preserve the highly valued and culturally significant native huckleberry bushes. This type of approach is what truly separates a community that survives from one that thrives.