Fire season is in full swing as the warmer drier weather has moved into the area and grasses have begun to yellow. June fires on Shaw and Orcas — both of which were quickly contained — have started the summer out on a flaming note.
“Due to the lack of rain this winter in conjunction with unusually high temperatures in late May and June, fire risk is a lot higher in San Juan County this year, and I encourage residents of the county to use extreme caution with campfires and other burning materials,” San Juan County Fire Marshal RJ Myers said in a press release about a June 15 fire in Moran State Park.
In 2018, the San Juan County Council and Town of Friday Harbor released a multijurisdictional Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan outlining both the history and potential of various hazards in the county. Twenty-two representatives including the departments of emergency management, public works, health, development, planning, fire chiefs and utility directors worked together to finalize the document. The Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan was adopted at the Sept. 17, 2018, county council meeting with a unanimous vote.
The number of people moving to San Juan County has increased steadily over the years, and with more human activity, there is an increased risk of fire.
In 2003, San Juan County assessed a 500-acre parcel of south Lopez Island with old-growth trees that revealed evidence of frequent, low-intensity fires occurring frequently until the mid-1800s.
“Native American inhabitants of the San Juan Islands used controlled burns to enhance the natural propagation of native plants important for food, such as camas bulbs. The arrival of nonnative settlers in the San Juans altered this pattern,” the San Juan County Hazard Mitigation Plan stated. “On San Juan Island, the need for wood to fuel the kilns used by the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company (founded in 1886) resulted in the dramatic clear-cutting of native hardwoods and conifers.”
According to a study by C.B. Sprenger and P.W. Dunwiddle on the fire history of Waldron Island, published in Northwest Science in 2011, San Juan County averaged 18.5 years between tree fires from 1700-1859. Since Euro-American settlement occurred in the archipelago, that frequency has decreased to every 103.8 years.
“So ironically, while the changes in vegetation and human intervention have decreased the frequency of fire in contemporary times, they have, conversely, increased the risk of more dangerous high-intensity or crown fires,” the document explained.
The largest fire of recent memory in the islands was the Satellite Island Fire on July 28, 2010. Sixteen firefighters battled the blaze through the night. Other notable fires in the last decade were all individually contained within a 4-acre area.
Seventy-four percent of fires in San Juan County between 1970 and 2011 were human-caused. During that time, an average of 13 wildfires burned approximately 30 acres annually in San Juan County. The year with the worst fire season, according to the county, was 2003 during which time 468 acres burned — most of which was on national park service land.
While the five fire districts of San Juan County – Friday Harbor, Lopez, Orcas, San Juan and Shaw – have interagency agreements to help fight fires within the county, they’re primarily staffed with volunteers, which adds to the response time. Additionally, the islands not serviced by Washington State Ferries are at high risk because they have no organized firefighting abilities, with forests protected by the Washington Department of Natural Resources and little-to-no protection for structural fires, according to the mitigation plan.
“San Juan County offers a combination of shoreline, valley acreage, and forested areas not available in other, more easily accessible urban settings,” the document said. “These same desirable characteristics make the county more vulnerable to fire.”
Phone, radio, water and road access can be limiting in San Juan County. The isolation that makes the county enticing is what makes forest fires potentially more hazardous.
“Private access roads and driveways are often narrow and crowded by dense overhanging and understory vegetation,” the plan said. “Under these conditions it is difficult and dangerous for firefighters and equipment to respond quickly and safely.”
A decline in farming and agriculture has left some hay fields wild and untamed – a perfect fuel for spreading wildfires farther and faster. Cigarette butts, exhaust from vehicles, roadside mowing or dragging chains can be a threatening source of fires along areas of dry, unkempt fields.
Poor forest management, landscaping and the removal of fire-resistant native hardwoods, like the madrone and Garry oak, over the decades has led to an increased fire risk. The department of emergency management said that having a defensible space around your house is the best way to protect it from a wildfire.
San Juan is one of the leading counties nationally participating in the National Fire Protection Agency’s FireWise program. To help mitigate the potential of future wildfires in San Juan County, the following list of goals for residents and the community at large was created.
• San Juan County public agencies should educate and perform wildfire preparedness with members of the public and private sectors of the community.
• The county should encourage the continued practice of FireWise landscaping concepts.
• An alternative to backyard debris burning should be created by the county, such as investing in a wood chipper.
• Work with residents near Doe Bay to prevent the spread of the noxious weed gorse.
• Increase access to and protect the Trout Lake Watershed by reducing understory debris that aids in the rate of fire spread and causes difficulties in fire fighting.
• Promote vegetation thinning, removing of dry pine needles, clearing of dead vegetation from property and gutters, and having wood fences detached from homes with metal flashing in the Orcas Rosario Highlands neighborhood to help reduce home loss.
• Clear the space around the Mount Constitution communications site of hazardous debris.
• The Town of Friday Harbor should participate in an annual initiative to keep lawns properly mowed. It is low-cost and effective, according to the mitigation plan’s creators.
• Add a brush truck and water tender capacity to Lopez Island.
• Support upgrading emergency service communication infrastructure, something the sheriff’s office is actively pursuing.
To read the entire Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan 2018, visit www.sanjuandem.net/About/PDFs/HazardMitigationPlan.pdf.