Washington conservation districts are chipping away at the threat of catastrophic wildfire

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2019 in the summer edition of National Woodlands magazine and is the third of a series of articles in partnership with The National Woodland Owners Association (NWOA).

By Jennifer Hinkhouse

In recent years, wildfires in the West have increased in frequency and severity; as a result, it has become more important than ever for woodland owners to understand wildfire prevention and response.

Landowners play a key role in wildfire preparedness, but many have questions on where to start, what to do, and how to help safeguard their homes and properties should a wildfire strike. To help landowners meet these challenges, conservation districts across the West provide locally-led solutions to wildfire and forest health concerns.

Sierra Country Club became a fully recognized Firewise™ Community with support from Whidbey Island Conservation District, Washington Department of Natural Resources and North Whidbey Fire & Rescue (Photo credit: Whidbey Island Conservation District)

In 2016, the state of Washington appropriated $1 million to the Washington State Conservation Commission to launch a grant program for conservation districts to implement local Firewise programs. The Washington State Conservation Commission is the coordinating state agency for all 45 conservation districts in Washington State. Together, the commission and conservation districts provide voluntary, incentive-based programs that empower private landowners to implement conservation on their property. This program was no exception. With this new funding, conservation districts began implementing the Firewise program.

Through efforts like these, conservation districts across the state of Washington have helped more than 1,400 landowners to date implement Firewise practices.

One of the first steps in any Firewise program is to conduct a wildfire risk assessment. These assessments are often developed through the state forestry agency, fire department or other local natural resource agency to help landowners identify and prioritize practices needed on their property. A board or committee comprised of residents, local fire department, state forestry agency, elected officials, emergency manager and other stakeholders can help prioritize practices. This group can also collaborate on developing the site’s risk reduction priorities, develop a multi-year action plan based on the risk assessment and oversee the completion of the annual renewal requirements needed to retain an “in good standing” status.

Action plans are then developed to prioritize a list of risk reduction projects/investments for the participating site, along with suggested homeowner actions and education activities that participants will strive to complete annually, or over a period of multiple years.

One of the main drivers to the success of any of these programs is outreach and education. Each participating site is required to have a minimum of one wildfire risk reduction educational outreach event or related activity annually. These provide an opportunity for other community members to learn about the Firewise program and see what practices look like.

Here are some ways that the conservation districts and communities in Washington implemented the Firewise program in their communities:

  • The Skagit Conservation District used GIS to integrate geology, soil, topography, vegetation, land use and population density to prioritize areas at highest risk. The Skagit County Department of Emergency Management used the tool to prioritize the location of a county-wide wildfire emergency response drill.
  • The Whidbey Island Conservation District helped landowners prepare forest management plans and assisted in implementing recommended best management practices. To help offset forest management costs, the conservation district helped landowners comply and utilize a state tax incentive program. In the last fiscal year, 38 forest landowners with 689 acres received assistance from that program, and 59 landowners with 208 acres received Firewise assessments.
    Cascadia Conservation District offers a chipping service as part of their county-wide wildfire fuels reduction program. (Photo by Cascadia Conservation District)
  • The Central Klickitat Conservation District assisted the Washington Department of Natural Resources in developing two Firewise communities — High Prairie and Keystone Acres. Forty-two people attended two workshops. Staff completed 32 individual Firewise assessments, and 22 people participated in a conservation district-sponsored mobile chipping program that treated 59 acres for wildfire fuels reduction.
  • Working with both the Stevens County Conservation District and two local fire districts, the Pend Oreille Conservation District completed over 130 home ignition zone assessments. In addition to one-on-one landowner fire prevention education, these assessments resulted in four projects that treated 65 acres in a target area and generated dozens more potential fuels reduction projects.
  • South Douglas Conservation District assisted landowners by providing cost-share for projects to reduce the fuel load and improve the health of the plants. Trees were thinned, and lower tree limbs and dead branches were removed to reduce wildfire impact.

Through efforts like these, conservation districts across the state of Washington have helped more than 1,400 landowners to date implement Firewise practices.

Jennifer Hinkhouse is the District Manager for the Campbell County Conservation District and a District Supervisor for the Crook County Natural Resource District in Wyoming. She chairs the national Joint Forestry Team and serves as the Southwest Region representative for the NACD Forestry Resource Policy Group. 

This article appeared in the 2019 summer edition of National Woodlands magazine. The publication is a product of the National Woodlands Owners Association.

Tags: Forestry, wildfire, Firewise, NWOA, woodland, Hinkhouse

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