PORT TOWNSEND — Fire danger on the North Olympic Peninsula is expected to remain high at least through the end of October as dry conditions in the region persist.
East Jefferson Fire Rescue Chief Bret Black told the Board of Jefferson County Commissioners on Monday there is above normal wildfire potential for the next few months as brush remains dry and lightning strikes have been seen in southern Washington and Oregon.
Light rain is expected throughout this week, but Black said it won’t be enough to dampen brush to remove the fire danger.
“We want to maintain that vigilance. Nothing’s going to restore that dead fuel,” Black said, referring to the branches and dried brush that fuel wildfires.
The burn ban currently in place in Jefferson County will likely continue through the end of October, Black said.
There are currently burn bans in effect in both Clallam and Jefferson counties as well as several other regions across the state.
The state Department of Natural Resources’ local Fire Danger Rating Area, which covers East Clallam and Jefferson counties, is currently rated “extreme,” while the FDRA covering the West End is “very high.”
Fire danger on the Olympic Peninsula is higher now than at the same time last year, and several areas across the state are currently combating large wildfires.
Agencies like East Jefferson Fire Rescue often send their personnel or equipment to other parts of the state to assist with firefighting efforts, but that can leave local departments vulnerable to being overwhelmed if several fires break out.
Black said residents should take precautions to secure their homes from wildfire danger and be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice if their area is threatened by fire. Homeowners can pre-emptively protect their homes from wildfire by cutting back vegetation around their home, hardscaping areas immediately around the house and cleaning gutters.
Black said doing things like spraying down the walls and roof are not effective and can potentially take water away from firefighting efforts.
Clallam and Jefferson counties and DNR use a three-level evacuation warning system for wildfires, with Level 1 urging residents to be aware of fires in their area and Level 3 recommending immediate evacuation.
Jefferson County residents can sign up for text message alerts through a program called Nixle, but Black recommended keeping a prepared “go bag” in the car and not waiting for evacuation orders if someone feels threatened by smoke or fire.
“If you feel threatened by a fire, don’t wait for government to save you,” Black said. “A wildfire can come from any direction. Don’t wait until you see a Level 3 alert. Don’t wait for us to come knocking door to door.”
A go bag should contain items including face masks; extra cash and credit cards; a first aid kit; flashlights and extra batteries, non-perishable foods and drinking water.
Residents should also be aware of potential evacuation routes and aware that, in the event of an emergency, there may be heavy traffic on the roads. Black noted that emergency alerts sent by authorities can quickly become outdated as fire conditions can change quickly.
Because fires can begin almost anywhere, it can be difficult for authorities to send out universal evacuation route information to the thousands of people across the county. Black also noted that cell phone notifications depend on phone service, which isn’t guaranteed in rural areas, and cell towers can be taken out of service by fires or power outages.
There are different sirens or loudspeaker devices that can be used to alert communities to danger, but those can be expensive and come with their own challenges. Many coastal communities have tsunami sirens, similar to air raid sirens, but those can only alert people to the presence of an emergency, not what kind or what to do.
Long Range Acoustic Devices, or LRADs, are loudspeakers that can broadcast recorded messages but are expensive and must be carefully arranged so that the message is audible.
Black recommended that communities host volunteer practice evacuations next spring to give community members and first responders experience with emergency events.
“It is not going to be smooth, but we need to know that,” Black said. “I think we need to know what we don’t know with a real-time exercise.”
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at email@example.com.