Peninsula on alert — fire danger high this week

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

Firefighters on the North Olympic Peninsula are on high alert this week because of temperatures expected to be in the 80s for several days and dry conditions that can turn a forest into a tinderbox.

“Ten months out of the year, we don’t have much of a fire risk in this area,” said Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict.

“But in the next week, everyone needs to be extremely careful, with no unsupervised fires or recreational fires,” he said.

“This is a time when everyone needs to be extremely sensible.”

A state ban on outdoor burning, other than in approved fire pits in designated campgrounds, is now in effect in both Clallam and Jefferson counties through Sept. 30.

“It’s understandable when it’s the holiday and people want to get together and have campfires,” said Clallam County Fire District No. 3 Chief Steve Vogel, whose district covers the eastern part of the county, including Sequim.

“But the rainy season is just around the corner, so we are asking them to be patient.”

The National Weather Service issued a “red flag warning” — the highest fire danger warning — Tuesday for much of Western Washington, including the Olympic Mountains, Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park.

The warning also extends to the Cascades, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Cascades National Park and Mount Rainier National Park.

The National Weather Service predicts temperatures in the 80s across the region through the weekend, with expectations that it will cool down sometime next week, according to meteorologist Art Gaebel.

“We’ve had a few days with no rain, and the timber is quite dry,” Gaebel said.

“During these times, when people get careless with their campfires and cigarette butts, it can become a huge problem.”

The weather service fire watch is in effect through Thursday afternoon, but it may be extended through the weekend if dangerous fire conditions persist.

East Jefferson Fire-Rescue Chief Gordon Pomeroy said his department often acts as a “stop-gap” on state lands, keeping the fire under control until state Department of Natural Resources crews can arrive.

That strategy was applied at this weekend’s Beckett Point fire “where we just drew a line in the sand and kept the fire contained until DNR got there with 30 guys,” Pomeroy said.

“We were lucky this week because we didn’t have a lot of people that were out of town or on vacation,” he said.

Carelessness started three recent Peninsula fires, authorities said.

The Big Hump fire in Olympic National Forest, which has burned at least 155 acres, is thought to have been sparked Thursday by an abandoned campfire.

The Beckett Point fire on Discovery Bay was started Monday by youngsters playing with fireworks, according to the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.

A fire in a transient camp on Cappy’s Trails in Port Townsend on Sunday was caused when the person who started the fire abandoned it without making sure it was extinguished.

“Most fires don’t start on their own,” Pomeroy said.

“They are a result of carelessness.

“How do you reach people when they don’t have a clue how much damage they are playing with?”

Pomeroy said Tuesday he is particularly worried about the area around Kai Tai Lagoon in Port Townsend, which is a popular transient camp and surrounded by dry weeds.

Pomeroy said several homes near the Beckett Point fire were susceptible to fire damage, since the dried grass had in many cases grown under the deck area.

Pomeroy suggested homeowners create a “fire wall” around their house by clipping the dried grass close to the ground and raking up the debris “so that the fire has nowhere to go.”

In the meantime, all fire services in the region are prepared for the worst.

On the Labor Day weekend, the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office sent out an alert message stating “everyone is advised to use extreme caution with fires throughout both counties during this holiday week-end.”

“We have been fortunate so far in Clallam County,” Benedict said.

“But we are still asking people to be really careful.”

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Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 06. 2011 11:22PM
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