Wildfire Danger Raised to the Red Zone

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In a few days, the annual community fireworks show will blast off at Quartermaster Harbor. The rite of summer on 4th of July draws huge crowds to Burton and residents around the Harbor eagerly await the display in a picnic type atmosphere as night falls.

At the same time, Vashon Island Fire and Rescue has raised the fire danger level to high, a sign of summer’s arrival and a reminder of the danger that a stray firework could get a blaze going. Even a moderate wind could send it raging out of control in one of the many Vashon neighborhoods where houses nestle in the trees.

The combination of these two circumstances means Islanders need to be extra careful and vigilant for the next several weeks.

“Vashon is in a risky position because we are so small. We have few fire engines and firefighters. It will be very challenging for us to knock down a fire early,” according to Fire Chief Charlie Krimmert. “If a wildfire gets away, mainland reinforcements are at least an hour away. In that time we could lose a dozen houses or more if a fire really got going.”

“It’s especially important for people to be careful now because so many people are setting off fireworks, many of them illegal and quite dangerous,” said VashonBePrepared President Vicky de Monterey Richoux. “Fireworks are only allowed from 9:00am to midnight on the 4th but we all know that lots of people begin shooting off fireworks a week or more ahead of time.” She also pointed out that all aerial fireworks are illegal in our state. “Anything that goes up, blows up, or has a stick or fins is illegal, particularly sky lanterns.”

Last fire season, VIFR responded to 13 brush fires, two beauty bark fires and 25 illegal burn fires, all of these with the potential to spread out of control. This year, an unusually dry spring means an even earlier start to the fire season and that’s why the fire warning signs went to high danger settings on June 12th.

Concerned members of the Gold Beach NERO’s association and the Friends of Maury Parks will be operating fire watch patrols on the 4th in an effort to detect any fires early before they can get out of hand.

If you see a fire, report it immediately to 911. Do not assume someone else reported the fire.  Tell the 911 operator you are on Vashon Island and describe the exact location of the fire. Cell phones and internet phone providers do not provide accurate location information to the 911 operator.

Prevention and early detection is the best way to avoid wildfires. That’s why VIFR and VashonBePrepared have produced a Firewise informational handout which is reprinted below.

Fireworks Safety
•Have a garden hose and bucket of water ready, even for so-called safe and sane fireworks such as sparklers, smokeballs, fountains and pinwheels. Sparklers burn at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit!
•Prevent burns by never carrying fireworks in pockets. Never throw a firework at a person or animal.
•If a firework fizzles, never try to relight it. Wait at least five minutes before getting near a dud. Then put it in your bucket of water.
•Set off your fireworks in open safe areas — away from buildings, trees and dry fields.
•Secure pets in the house so they cannot run away when frightened by loud noises. Secure horses and other livestock in corrals or barns.
•Use fireworks legally. King County permits private fireworks on 4th of July only from 9:00am to midnight. Not the week before or after.
•Bottle Rockets, Aerial Rockets and Firecrackers are illegal in Washington. If it flies and has a stick it’s not legal. Sky lanterns have also been made illegal in our state.
•Save money (and maybe your house!). Watch the community fireworks at Quartermaster Harbor.

Wildfire Prevention
•Move flammable objects at least 30 feet from your home. Woodpiles, lawn furniture, wood mulch and construction material can easily catch fire and spread to the building.
•Clean your roof, gutters and decks of leaves and other flammables. Windblown embers spread fires, so remove anything that might could provide tinder and ignite.
•Screen vents, eaves and under decks from embers by covering the openings with 1/8” wire mesh.
•Clear dead vegetation at least five feet from your home. Embers could turn into spot fires which could spread to your house.
•Prune nearby limbs at least six to ten feet above ground to prevent ground fire from laddering up trees and spreading crown to crown.
•Watch the fire danger signs around the Island and be extra alert when the pointer moves into the red high danger zone. Call 911 to report fires.
•Have a plan to reunify your family and pets if separated during an emergency evacuation.
•If a fire breaks out, go to Voice of Vashon 1650AM and facebook.com/VoiceOfVashon for bulletins on sheltering in place, seeking a safe haven or evacuating.

Wildfire Facts
Q:    Why worry about wildfire? We live on the west side of the Cascades, where major fires are rare.
A:    Our special wildfire risk on Vashon is our limited firefighting resources, even for a small incident. Even a small wildfire could be devastating because we have few firefighters, even fewer fire trucks and limited accessible firefighting water. Off-island reinforcements are at least an hour away. An hour is all it takes to destroy a home – or even a dozen homes. And more than 30 of our neighborhoods have a single road in or out, a major challenge in an evacuation.
Q:    Could the town-destroying fire devastation of Paradise and Santa Rosa California happen here?
A:    Yes, but it is unlikely. The fire weather situation on Vashon is very different from California or the east side of Washington State. We don’t often have the hot dry east (Diablo or Santa Ana type) winds that blow 60 miles per hour, suck humidity out of brush and trees, and spread fire with explosive force. The island usually has overnight cooling weather and ocean humidity.
Q:    Is there an island evacuation plan?
A:    It would be impossible to evacuate the whole island quickly. Instead, we are working on neighborhood evacuation plans. Many Vashon residents live in areas with only a single access road and we need to plan to get them to safety. We may need to advise moving to a fire haven such as a wide beach or parking area.
Q:    Did the Governor declare a drought emergency in 2019?
A:    Yes, but Vashon and the metropolitan Seattle area are not in the drought-designated areas. A drought designation is about availability of water for crops and other human uses. This year’s below average snowpack in the mountains means there will be less water availability in the designated drought areas until next winter.
Q:    Is this year drier than normal in the Puget Sound area?
A:    Yes, it is a bit drier this year and we are moving into fire season since we normally get little rain in summer. For wildfire danger, Vashon and most of Puget Sound, usually get humid air and cooler temperatures in the evening and overnight. That helps reduce chances for the major dry and windblown wildfires seen in other areas.
Q:    Where do I go to learn more?
A:    Check these links for additional info.
Checklists and more:  VashonBePrepared.org/VashonFirewise
Emergency bulletins: VoiceOfVashon.org streaming and 1650AM
Preparing your home:  NFPA.org/Public-Education/By-topic/Wildfire
Being ready for an evacuation: ReadyForWildfire.org/Go-Evacuation-Guide/
What to do if trapped:  ReadyForWildfire.org/What-To-Do-If-Trapped/