Forest fires like the one that broke out between Bucoda and Centralia on Monday, where density of the forest prevented firefighters from attacking the flames themselves and prompted a helicopter response from the Department of Natural Resources, are always concerning.
But as dangerous as forest fires are, the thought of them is not what keeps West Thurston Fire Operations Chief Robert Scott up at night.
Scott’s nightmare scenario instead lies in the grasslands that cover much of Thurston and Lewis counties.
Driving through a neighborhood near the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area with Chronicle reporters after a brief rain on Tuesday, Scott pointed out factors that added to the area’s fire risk: narrow one-lane roads, a lack of clear signage, dense patches of highly-flammable Scotch broom, low-hanging tree branches, tall grass growing adjacent to structures and the roadway.
If a fire started in that neighborhood, the roadways would limit how quickly residents could get out and what equipment fire crews could bring in. The lack of signage could lead to fire crews getting lost in dense smoke, further slowing their response. And the abundance of fuel so close to structures and the roadway means a fire in the area could spread quickly and threaten people’s property.
“That keeps me up at night,” Scott said.
When asked how he would respond to a large fire in that neighborhood, Scott said, “We are going to try and mitigate it, but there’s so many factors we have no control over.”
Fire management starts with smart forest and land practices, but residents can aid firefighters and better protect their properties by creating a buffer between structures and flammable materials like grass and tree branches.
That buffer, called defensible space, is instrumental in stopping or slowing a spreading fire, Scott said. He specifically referenced Mima Road residences in South Thurston County that were threatened by the Bordeaux Fire in 2020 but didn’t burn because of a combination of firefighter action and defensible space around the properties.
An ideal defensible space is a 50- to 100-foot area around a structure with short, green grass or other non-flammable ground cover, with any trees pruned 10 feet off the ground and a lack of dead vegetation and other flammables on the ground including propane tanks or wood piles.
Defensible space is also important along roadways and can help slow or stop a fire from spreading, Scott said.
After the Scatter Creek wildfires in Grand Mound, which burned more than 400 acres on either side of Interstate 5 in 2017, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has focused heavily on preventing future fires on the property. As part of that, it began mowing a 40-foot defensible space around the perimeter of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area.
“These folks doing this is huge,” said Scott, calling the work an example of “positive collaborative work between government agencies to prevent fire spread.”
Some of that fire prevention work includes burning patches of Scotch broom, a non-native shrub that thrives in the area and is extremely flammable. “Burning (Scotch broom) is the best way to kill it over acreage without some of the collateral that spraying does,” said Josh Cook, a prairie restoration specialist with WDFW who was mowing the perimeter of Scatter Creek when Scott and Chronicle reporters stopped by on Tuesday.
West Thurston Regional Fire Authority is in the process of updating its hazard mitigation plan to better-represent the fire potential and hazards of the region. “What we have in our region are numerous ‘micro-climates’ with topography-driven winds that can change … and during certain weather conditions, we can face much different fire scenarios,” said Scott.
Those winds were major factors in both the Scatter Creek and Bordeaux fires, said Scott.
The Bordeaux Fire started as a small fire ignited by a downed power line in a field, West Thurston Firefighter/EMT Chris White recalled Tuesday. “We’re out in the field and it started to grow a little bit, so we backed off down to the road,” said White. “We were fighting it with hose lines for a while as best we could, just to kind of tame it down, and then all of a sudden, we got crazy winds up there … and all of a sudden, this fire blew up.”
The nearby Mima Mounds affected the incoming winds, said White.
“They act as a natural chute and all of a sudden, the fire intensified.”
White and his partner ended up throwing their rig into reverse to get some distance from the flames. As they were backing up, a fire storm blew across the roadway — right over White and his partner in their vehicle.
Neither were injured, but they had damaged the vehicle’s apparatus while backing away from the flames and had to continue working the fire on foot.
“We walked something crazy, like 23 miles or something that day, on foot, and we were going door to door and just getting people out of their houses,” White recalled.
“That fire intensity isn’t often seen out here but when it is, it can do a lot of damage very quickly,” said Scott of the Bordeaux Fire.
Since that fire, the Bordeaux community has taken significant steps towards improving the defensible space on their properties and working with the fire department to protect the area from any future fires.
“Our role is from a response and extinguish standpoint, but it’s also from a proactive and preventative standpoint,” said Scott. “We want to get away from being reactive.”
Scott encourages other Western Washington residents to do what they can to create defensible space around their properties and work with their local fire departments and government agencies to reduce fire risk in their communities.
“There is a lot surrounding fire management, which starts with smart forest and land practices. Secondary is having citizens better prepare themselves and their property against wildfire with a defensible space,” said Scott. “The time to act to better protect your house and property is well before the fire season.”