SPOKANE, Wash. — Clearing fire fuels is critical to reducing the risk of wildfires in the summer months. Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources Landowner Program focuses on fire hazard abatement on private land.
The program saw more landowners interested in participating in the program during the pandemic. Steve Harris, Assistant Region Manager in Northeast for Wildfire and Forest Practices, attributed the uptick in participation to stay at home orders, saying people were looking for more to do around the house.
DNR workers help landowners remove small trees, prune large trees, and remove slash (the dead brush that burns easily) from the ground.
“When the fuels are overgrown, especially around infrastructure or people’s homes where people reside, then that puts lives at risk and property at risk,” Harris said.
In 2020 DNR almost reached their aggressive goal of reducing fire fuels in 5,500 acres of private land. Harris said DNR was able to continue the program despite COVID restrictions, because the governor identified fire hazard abatement as an essential function.
DNR can’t completely stop wildfires though. When a wildfire hits, fire crews’ typical rules are inherently COVID-safe. Firefighters stay 10 feet apart on the fire line.
“The biggest challenge for us is transportation. That’s where we had to take extra precaution to make sure we mask up and wipe down surfaces,” Harris said.
They also had to make changes to fire camps, where crews stay overnight while fighting a fire. Harris said the silver lining of these changes was a decrease in “camp crud,” a common issue where firefighters end up sick in camps.
Harris said the plan is to keep some of the COVID protocols in place beyond the pandemic to ensure firefighter health.