With the 2022 fire season around the corner, Packwood Fire Chief Lonnie Goble isn’t just worried about a big wildfire in Packwood. He’s expecting it.
“In Timberline and High Valley, if a fire starts and we don't get there within 45 minutes of that fire starting, it ain't gonna be just High Valley, it's gonna be all Packwood is probably gonna burn up and I don't care how many fire departments you get,” Goble said.
He added that it’s no longer a question of “if?” the East Lewis County town will have a big fire, but, “when?”
On Thursday night, about 40 people gathered at the Packwood Community Hall to hear a presentation on fire prevention and safety from Goble, Tanner Stemkowski from the Department of Natural Resources, Nikia Hernandez, a ranger with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (GPNF), Jennifer Harris, GPNF zone fire management officer and Dirk Shupe, fire management staff officer for GPNF and Mount Hood national forests.
Presenters discussed a grant program called Firewise, where homeowners associations — of which there are several in Packwood — can apply for funding to make their homes more fire safe.
Goble said in 2020, Lewis County Fire District 10 responded to 21 total calls, whereas in 2021, they responded to 64. Seventeen of the calls were to Airbnbs or other short-term rental homes and of those, 14 were left with nobody at the house. He said this to illustrate that it is not just the department’s, but also the public’s responsibility to prevent fires.
Steps residents can take to protect their homes from fire include getting rid of dry brush around the house, using mulch to maintain wet soil, planting fire resistant flora, watering plants to hold more humidity and keeping fuel such as woodpiles, as far from the house as possible.
Hernandez spoke about how a mixture of factors went into the uptick in wildfires on the west side of the Cascades including climate change and an increase in wildland urban interface.
“You’re catching the common theme. ‘What you need to do to prepare.’ Firefighters are a finite resource. There aren’t enough when there’s wildfires across the west,” Hernandez said. “We cover 600,000 acres of national forests and you heard Jen, as of a few years ago, we cover Mount Rainier National Park. So firefighters are a finite, finite resource.”
Homeowners as individuals or in groups should be visiting firewise.org to learn more about the steps they can take to protect their homes, according to the presenters. Hernandez said the biggest determinant of a house’s fate in a fire is the last 100 yards before the structure, and that even in recent major residential-area fires, many houses were spared because they took those “firewise” steps early on.
“The fire danger here is very serious and it’s time now that we start doing something about it,” Goble said.