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Homeowners, state team up to thin forests to prevent wildfires

Crews near Cle Elum are on a mission to fight wildfires before they start. It's part of a statewide push to thin overgrown land before it's too late.

CLE ELUM, Wash. — Deep in a forest in Kittitas County crews feed a machine with a never-ending appetite. They’re working to replicate wildfire prevention work that Mother Nature isn’t doing anymore.

“Historically when you had fires on this landscape more frequently it would manage the level of vegetation in the forest density. And so you wouldn’t have as much biomass on this landscape,” said Jason Emsley with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Now crews are clearing overgrown trees and brush to reduce wildfire fuels and prevent massive fires from getting out of control.

This is just a portion of the millions of acres of forest land in Washington state that the Department of Natural Resources says is overgrown and could pose a real danger should it ignite. They point to devastating wildfires in California as proof that this work is important.

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“We want a diverse landscape. What we don’t want it to look like is a tree farm,” said Connor Craig, a firefighter turned business owner, who operated Wildfire Home Protection.

It's a process that’s taking place on a small scale too. Take homeowner Patty O’Hearn.

“I recognize that fire wising is important if I want to manage to save my property,” O’Hearn said.

It's a property complete with a beautiful view she doesn’t want to lose. She’s one of the homeowners taking part of the small landowner assistance program through DNR, which offers funding that she’s used to clear brush, take down overgrown trees and create a buffer between her property and the nature she loves.

WATCH: How to defend your home from wildfires

Fifteen minutes up a winding dirt road and you’ll find a forest restoration company working away on public forest land, which is land that the Washington Nature Conservancy, a non profit, works to protect.
And while it may look counter intuitive – each tree that comes down clears the way for a healthy forest.

“By making the whole landscape more resilient and creating the opportunity to make big fires smaller we’re helping everybody,” Emsley said.

RELATED: Preparing for wildfires: How to stay safe during an emergency

A mission they want homeowners to know is they’re not alone as they team up to make sure the forests stay healthy, even when fire does strike.

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