June 30, 2021

We Can Greatly Reduce the Wildfire Threat. Will Our Leaders Take the Necessary Steps?

Even before the heatwave, there was great concern about the potential for wildfires this summer.  But now the worry is heightened and palpable.

My central point in this blog is that we could profoundly reduce the wildfire risk by taking some prudent steps immediately, but that will require state leaders to act with more energy and purpose than in the past.


Specifically, the state must: (1) immediately call for a ban on the use of personal fireworks, and (2) establish a comprehensive, coherent policy for de-energizing powerlines, guided by highly skillful weather forecasts.

The Lower Elevation of the Eastern Part of Our State is Ready to Burn

Due to the relatively dry spring and the warm temperatures of the past week, the eastern portion of the state is dry enough to burn.  Now, a dry eastern Washington during summer is not unusual, but because of the dry/warm start, eastern Washington is several weeks advanced in fire potential.   

So the conditions now are like those typically observed in mid-July.  To illustrate, here is the latest 100-h dead fuel moisture (suitable for grasses and small diameter dead plants).  Below 10% is dry enough to burn well.  The potential for grass and range fires is real, and the threat is serious for the lower elevations of regional terrain as well.


Fireworks

Personal fireworks are a major cause of fires in our region.  Several significant regional wildfires have been caused by irresponsibly used fireworks, such as the massive Eagle Creek Fire that spread to both sides of the Columbia Gorge.  50,000 acres were burnt over three months during September 2017, with serious air quality impacts for a major metropolitan area.  Some of the most beautiful areas of the Columbia Gorge scenic area were destroyed, robbing a generation of visitors of the enjoyment of a stunning natural area.


Another wildfire was started by fireworks in Corbett, Oregon in September 2020 causing a roadside brush fire.  Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the necessity of dealing with fireworks is the average number of new wildfires by date (see below).  July 4th is the date the most fire starts.  And the reason is not escaped barbecue fires.

And there are the numerous house fires and injuries caused by fireworks...but that is another story.

To deal with the real threat of fireworks-initiated fires, an immediate statewide ban on personal fireworks use if needed.  Some counties and municipalities have already initiated bans and it is time for the governor to follow suit,

Stopping Power Line Fires

A number of the major wildfires last September were associated with strong winds causing powerline fires (either vegetation fell on the powerlines or the powerlines toppled onto trees).  The power line initiated fires included the Malden Fire in eastern Washington and the Holiday Farm Fire in Oregon.  I could name a dozen more.

Although vegetation management can greatly mitigate such fires and should be done, the only way to effectively eliminate the threat is to de-energize power lines in rural areas where a fire could be sparked by failing power infrastructure.  Such powerline shutdowns have been used effectively in California.

A powerful tool for initiating such shutdowns is the ability to accurately forecast winds and dry weather.   Using excellent forecasts, de-energizing lines can generally be done for a short period of strong winds.

At this stage, Washington State does not have a general or effective policy on shutting down powerlines and needs to develop one immediately.

Time To Act

Governor Inslee needs to deal with the wildfire threat immediately by establishing a fireworks ban and putting into place a de-energization plan that will be in place within weeks.   Extensive parts of the state are dry enough to burn right now....all that is needed is the initiation of the fires and wind.

Today, a major (lightning-caused) fire has started in nearby British Columbia (the Lytton Fire) and has spread to over  12,000 acres, showing that the potential for large fires exists right now.

If state leaders do nothing and a major fire occurs during the next few months due to fireworks or powerline interactions with vegetation, responsibility will be clear.  And vague statements blaming global warming will not be acceptable.

Finally, I should note that there are many long-term steps to reduce the wildfire threat that have been neglected, such as thinning the forests, bringing back more controlled fire, and modernizing the state's aged fire response capabilities (e.g., lack of modern aircraft), to name only a few.    There is so much that can be done to lessen the potential for catastrophic fires in our state and we need leaders that will deal with the problem in a more coherent, energetic, and sustained way.

29 comments:

  1. Sounds like socialism to me. America is the land of the free. Banning fireworks and turning off our electricity is not the answer. A few fires is the price of freedom.

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    1. Nah, its not political. Its just wisdom.

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    2. Good luck with the fireworks ban. The freedumb to blow things up wherever we want (risking the safety of others) is about the same as the freedumb to go maskless during a pandemic, and we sure do love our freedumb, don't we?

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    3. The "Camp" wildfire destroyed almost 19,000 structures, killed 85 people and burned up over 150k acres. Pacific Gas and Electric is implicated in that fire, and has the burden of liability.
      Honestly, there seems to be some confusion between "Socialism" and being "Civic Minded?" or even just avoiding being culpable for a potential tragic event. It seems like any suggestion to the effect of pumping the brakes on individual activity in order to possibly avoid property damage or injury/death to others is branded "Socialism". No one can be told what should be done for the overall best interest of everyone.

      Basically we have some real-estate that is branded the USA but is in reality 328 million sovereign nations (population of USA as per 2019 census) where no one can be told what to do. To the point that a civic minded approach to anything is a non starter and discussion about being neighborly or even remotely courteous to others is basically a moot topic. Social development of the typical American apparently stops at adolescence. There is a dearth of actual grown ups in the USA.

      Hopefully though when it comes time for that proverbial day in court, after being free to be dumb, the judge doesn't view such logic in a positive light. Powco's de-energize lines because its their butts in a sling if something goes wrong. Its not an easy decision either, since their are consequences related to the power being off. Causality comes into play energized or de-energized.

      Fireworks? The same standard. If your actions using consumer fireworks lead to the destruction of property or injury/loss of life, than be prepared to face the consequences. THAT is the real price of Freedom. So go ahead and be free to be dumb, and hope that God really does look out for idiots, drunkards and children...since America is all three.

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  2. The fireworks that caused the Eagle Creek fire were illegal. They WERE banned.

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  3. In the 2 examples you used for major fires started by fireworks, neither of them were from the use of legal fireworks. I.E. making them more illegal wouldn't have prevented them from happening.

    Most politicians fail to do this, but we should focus more on education before making more things 'more' illegal.

    A proper culture ethic about fire prevention would go way further to prevent fires than simply making fireworks illegal.

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  4. Um, this is going to sound stupid as I am east of the Mountains and breath the smoke from the dnr fires every year, how about reducing the amount of burnable material? Graze the crap out of dnr lands in eastern wa, get them down to 6" tall, I'm just a guy with a high school degree, but if you reduce the burnable material (especially if we're in a "climate change" scenario) it would help a hell of a lot. To put it simply for a complex problem, graze it, log it or watch it burn (and breathe it). I'm considering suing the dnr for neglecting their lands and letting the cheat grass grow, causing me health problems.

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  5. There was an excellent post on using crop dusters to attack small fire immediately as they are basically mini water carrying fire stoppers, from one of the Eastern washington tv stations.

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  6. Nice editorial. I hope state leadership takes heed. Did you mean "thinning the forrests"?

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  7. There are many Indian reservations in WA state. Good luck on banning the sale there, Cliff.

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  8. Hard to imagine effective fireworks-ban enforcement in Eastern WA. I wonder if there would be more compliance with a formal request and educational outreach like your telling graph. Shutting down the grid will be unpopular as well but readers of your blog would be supportive.

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  9. I'm trying to get Normandy Park, WA to ban fireworks. We have one of the highest rates of illegal firework activity in the state, and nothing is ever done about it.

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  10. I respect Cliff, but his proposal to ban fireworks statewide because of fire risk seems an opportunistic attempt to be rid of an annoyance than a real fire reduction proposal.

    Recreational fires, specifically camp fires and similar, are a demonstrated much more common ignition source for wildfires, so why not propose a statewide ban on them until the fall? That would certainly contribute more towards reducing wildfire risk than a fireworks ban.

    I think hot catalytic converters parked over dry grass and brush results in more fires than fireworks. Maybe a ban in activities than result in that should be on the table?

    But fire risk reduction isn’t the primary intent of the fireworks ban, is it?

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  11. I like the "de-energize power lines in rural areas where a fire could be sparked by failing power infrastructure" part because something COULD happen (and we must, by all means, impose our will on others because of what *could* happen) and it takes power from folks that may need it to run fire fighting/life-saving equipment yet leaves your ice machine running. How about we clear the lines of vegetation instead?
    Yep, I know I'm not very scientific about it: but I've been on the "de-energized" end of that statement and not had the power to run my cpap (or make dinner unless I wanted to start a fire to cook it on). So, yeah, de-energize sounds real good to city folks.

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  12. In regard to de-energizing the power lines, we need hundreds of anemometers installed along the powerlines at the vulnerable locations to give good real time data for decision making.

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  13. I've never understood the love affair with consumer fireworks. Each year, I find a couple in my yard, and oftentimes 1-2 that landed on my roof.

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  14. Seems like Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz should be one of those leaders engaging and driving this.

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  15. I'm with you on fireworks, Cliff, but I think we need to take climate action, too.

    And sorry to bring this up, but remember this?https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2019/12/promoters-of-climate-anxiety.html

    Not a good look, given this:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/07/01/heat-wave-deaths-pacific-northwest/

    I know they all weren't in Seattle, but, still.

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  16. Agree totally. In the longer term we desperately need to reduce the fuel load. Many of our forested areas are overstocked, with stagnation and the resultant insect and disease becoming an issue and increasing fire risk. To reduce the fuel load in a silviculturally sound and economical fashion, we will need to thin both merchantable and nonmerchantable size classes which will necessitate an modest increase in our forest products industry. Thinning is a very expensive proposition. To deal with the backlog that has occurred due to the suspension of logging on federal lands for more than 40 years, we will need to generate jobs and income to actually address the full scope of the problem. If we continue with modest measures, we will soon see a return to the conditions prevalent in the 1920s when the acreage burned annually was 5 times great than our worst most recent years.

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  17. Is there a politician of any stripe in the entire state who would be so brave as to ban personal fireworks? I think not, even though it would be a good thing. Puget Sound Energy has refused to do a power down plan, odd!

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    1. I am no friend of fireworks, but I think I am the only one in these comment threads to point out a hard fact, and a crucial one: the tribes sell just about all of the fireworks. No ban will be anything more than typical Seattle-Olympia jaw-flapping without their cooperation.

      Oh, and "progressive" do-gooders, even though I'd welcome an EFFECTIVE ban, I will fall over laughing if their response is to remind you about tribal sovereigty. Nice idea that you supported, eh?

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    2. The Chelan County commissioners banned (personal) fireworks in the county several years ago and there has been no major uproar about it. Also Chelan PUD has set up for power shut downs. If Chelan county can do it, any county can do it.

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  18. Jay Inslee is stupid. Even if what Cliff proposes would work, Jay would never do it.

    The solution is to trim the trees under the powerlines and to install sprinklers to keep the ground cover green. De-energizing the powerlines affects everyone supported by those powerlines, city and rural. Proper forest management, where the vegetation is removed will stop the fires from starting in the first place. And if the green-weenies don't like that, then screw them. Keeping any remaining vegetation green will also remove the fuel that any sparks might have generated.

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  19. Banning fireworks sounds like communism to me, normally I support socialist/progressive democrat policies but I'll vote republican if I have to in order to stop a fireworks ban. 4th of July fireworks have been a fun family tradition since this country was founded. Families wouldn't set off fireworks if it was that dangerous. Yes their is a small risk of injury/starting a fire but everything in life has risks if you take no risk you are not living and unless its really dangerous you should have the freedom to decide if the risk is worth it. When I set off fireworks I set them off in the street where there is nothing to burn, I back away at least 20 feet before the firework goes off and I have a garden hose/bucket ready. Setting off fireworks in the national park/wilderness is crazy, the people who started the eagle creek fire should have gotten a huge fine. I support fining people who use fireworks recklessly but not a complete ban. The big increase in fires on the 4th is worrisome but I think it could be solved without a complete ban. When my parents were kids people set off fireworks in California which is much drier than Washington so I don't want to hear the its too dry argument. My parents had alot of fun with fireworks as kids and they didn't get blown up, their house didn't burn down.

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  20. Its not the government's responsibility. Its the people's responsibility.

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    1. I would argue that Protecting people from other people is government's responsibility. That's why we have laws, regulations, and police.

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    2. I would argue that Protecting people from other people is government's responsibility. That's why we have laws, regulations, and police.

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  21. Governor Inslee lacks the authority to shut down Boom City; if you want to ban fireworks in the state of Washington you need to solicit the appropriate tribal leaders.

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Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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