Wildfire Ready Neighbors program launches in San Juan County

On May 8, the local launch of Wildfire Ready Neighbors took place at the San Juan Island Fire Station, as an initiative to support wildfire preparedness as the island heads into summer. As the risk of wildfires increases across western Washington, with more destructive fires west of the Cascades, local wildfire and emergency organizations have come together to collaborate to broaden available resources for residents in San Juan County.

The Washington State Department of Resources have partnered with multiple organizations, including Fire and Rescue departments from San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Waldron Island and Decatur Island, as well as San Juan County Emergency Management, San Juan County Fire Marshal’s Office, OPALCO, National Park Service, and the San Juan Islands Conservation District.

Following opening remarks and gratitude given by San Juan Island Fire Chief Noel Monin, DNR Community Wildfire Resilience Coordinator Jenny Coe gave background on Wildfire Ready Neighbors, which was created in 2021 following the 2020 Labor Day fires when more than 500,000 acres burned across the state in less than 36 hours. Since then, the program has engaged 11 counties now including San Juan County in wildfire awareness and preparedness efforts, and have worked with over five thousand Washington residents to complete thirty thousand preparedness actions.

Residents can take part in the program by signing up at wildfireready.com to request a free comprehensive risk assessment of their property from a local welfare expert and receive a personalized action plan and local resources.

“This program is not just about clearing brush or maintaining roofs,” said Coe. “It’s really about fostering a sense of shared responsibility, and the more we can work together as neighbors and communities, the better we can help prevent, withstand and recover from wildfire.”

Paul Andersson, Executive Director of the San Juan Island Conservation District, followed Coe in speaking about the Conservation District’s role in the county and how they are partnering to support the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program. According to Andersson, since 1947, the Conservation District has spent the last 75 years bridging the gap between public funds and private landowners dealing with resource management issues, whether it relates to agriculture, forestry, streams or wildlife. With few county dollars going towards its funding, Andersson said the organization consistently applies for grant funding to pay for an array of projects, including forest thinning and biochar burning, which are crucial to reducing wildfire risk on the islands.

“There was a lot more fire out here [in the past] than a lot of people realize and we live in a fire-adapted ecosystem, which has changed dramatically over the past 100 years,” said Andersson. “What we’re left with are heavily overstocked forests. They’re not healthy, and they’re not happy either.”

Andersson mentioned a study conducted by the Northwest Natural Resource Group looking at the woody biomass on the landscape in the San Juan Islands, which found there were three million tons of excess non-merchantable biomass in the San Juan Islands, with 540,000 tons in the wildland-urban interface alone. This biomass not only steals nutrients and water from the rest of the surrounding forest but also serves as fuel for a potentially detrimental wildfire.

One of the ways in which the Conservation Districting is taking part in the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program is by training some of its local Conservation Corps members to conduct the at-home risk assessments of property owners who sign up for the free visit.

The first portion of the launch event concluded with a Q and A session, allowing for the many residents in attendance both in person and on Zoom to learn more about the program and ask specific questions relating to wildfire preparedness.

When asked about the risk of a potential fire in heavily wooded areas like English camp that pose a threat to nearby property owners, Coe responded, “Do what you can do on your property because that’s what you have control of. Anything you can do within 30 feet of your home is going to make a big difference. There are very specific actions for the structures and for the vegetation around your home that we recommend through Wildfire Ready Neighbors. If you can focus on that, you’re improving your chances hugely in your home surviving a wildfire.”

Another attendee asked for a prediction on the upcoming fire season this summer. Josh Etringer, Assistant Fire Manager of DNR Northwest answered the question: “I think it’s maybe too early to tell. We’re in a bit of a dryer cycle right now but how fire seasons really dictate in western Washington is in May and June rainfall totals, and so until that comes to fruition, it’s going to be hard to predict. Last year we had a really busy Western Washington season statistically-wise for fires in the Northwest region specifically, starting with a type three fire in late May. If we get a bunch of rainfall in May, then the fire season is going to be normal. If we don’t get a bunch of rainfall in May, then it’s going to be like an early start like last year.”

The second portion of the event was located at Oak Knoll Farm on Douglas Road, owned by Adam Green, where members of the public were invited to see Kathleen Salinas, San Juan Island EMS and San Juan Island Fire and Rescue volunteer conduct a fire risk assessment. Throughout the home visit, Salinas pointed out different areas surrounding the house and different features of the property to bring awareness of potential fire risks and provide suggestions and solutions.

Key actions that Salinas focused on throughout the assessment were removing all flammable debris such as dead vegetation, dried leaves, pine needles and wood scraps within the “immediate zone” of the house, the five feet surrounding the house, particularly the 6-18 inch edge next to the house. In addition, Salinas said it was important to keep all plants and vegetation in the immediate zone trimmed and watered and to maintain 6-10 feet between understory vegetation and the lowest branches of trees.

As for ways to harden homes against fires, ensuring the roof and gutters are made of metal or other Class-A fire-rated materials is paramount. Salinas also suggested for Green to replace the attic window screen with ⅛ inch screens to eliminate the opportunity of embers blowing through the gaps. She pointed out that Green’s concrete patio was an ideal feature of the house, but reiterated the importance of consistently sweeping away any debris and removing wooden patio furniture on extremely hot and dry periods during the summer.

The final portion of the Wildfire Ready Neighbors event concluded with a final chance to ask and answer any questions, in which different points such as removing all juniper plants and their waxy leaves and utilizing gutter covers and garage door gap-closers were brought up. Coe thanked the sponsors and everyone who attended the event and the at-home assessment and reiterated the ways in which San Juan County residents can access the program.

“This program is really for everyone. It’s for homeowners, it’s for renters, small forest landowners, and part-time residents. They’re all pivotal in the mission to make our communities safer and stronger,” said Coe.

Residents can sign up at WildfireReady.com or by phone at 1-877-WA-READY to receive a personalized plan and at-home consultation. Those who join before June 19 are automatically entered to win a $300 gift card. By putting your plan into action, you can protect your property as well as help your community and connect with local resources.