Agencies brave heat to map fire danger zones

Last week’s heat wave coincided with the start of a project to map wildfire danger zones within Hood River County.

Peter Mackwell, Columbia Gorge Wildfire Preparedness Project coordinator, said four state and federal agencies are involved in developing the inventory of high risk areas. He said their goal is to overcome budget constraints by creating a central GIS data base to coordinate firefighting and prevention activities.

“We should be able to see the future potential where fire could spread once we get the lay of the land,” said Mackwell.

He said officials involved in the project want to avoid a repeat of last year’s Sheldon Ridge blaze in the hills above Mosier that blackened 12,761 acres and carried a $3.5 million suppression pricetag.

For the next 90 days, a small crew of fire prevention specialists will work with the Pine Grove fire department to pinpoint threatened homesites in that area. Brochures will be left for the owners of these properties to outline how they can create “defensible space” around their dwelling and outbuildings.

Mackwell, who works for the Washington State University Extension Service, said the mapping is being done in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service. It will overlap the Columbia River to include Skamania and Klickitat counties in Washington, and Hood River and Wasco counties in Oregon.

Mackwell said the four Gorge counties are being surveyed because they are at risk for a major wildfire because of high fuel loads and increasing development in timbered areas. In addition, he said weather conditions in the Gorge are typically warm and windy during the summer months, setting the stage for fires to be ignited by lightening strikes or careless recreationists.

He said the complete listing of potential problem sites within the involved counties is expected to take about two years. Once the inventory has been finalized, Mackwell said it will be used to alert emergency responders about potential obstacles and safety risks they could face during a fire. In addition, he said the data will help rural fire districts qualify for grant funding to purchase equipment and provide their volunteers with more training opportunities.

The “fire-wise” education presented to homeowners centers on the “Lean, Clean, and Green” program. Landowners are asked to take the following steps to get rid of flammable plantings while retaining natural screening:

Lean — Limit the number of plants within a 30 foot circle around the house and keep trees trimmed up and spaced about 100 feet away from structures.

Clean — Get rid of dead branches and dry undergrowth. Don’t stack kindling and firewood next to a house or outbuilding.

Green — Plant low growing herbaceous (non-woody) plants and keep them watered during the fire season.

For more information on the new project call Mackwell at 509-427-4130 or e-mail at:

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