By Michael Sperazza and Roger Deaver
As summer begins, it’s important to review ways to reduce the risk of wildfires. The danger of a destructive fire on Vashon is extremely high because there is so much forested land with limited access and steep topography — enabling fires to spread quickly, and making it difficult for Vashon Island Fire and Rescue (VIFR) to put out a fire before it gets out of hand and turns into a home-destroying conflagration.
Last fire season, VIFR responded to 13 brush fires, two beauty bark fires and 25 illegal burn fires, all of these with the potential to spread out of control. Two of last year’s fires required the assistance of area fireboats to be extinguished. This year, an unusually dry spring means an especially early start to the fire season. In fact, the fire warning signs were turned up to high danger (red) on June 12. One short duration rain event does little to reduce the dry fuel loading in forested areas.
Prevention and early detection is the best way to avoid wildfires. Wildfires can start from a number of human causes, including careless disposal of cigarettes and matches, improper brush burning, camp and beach fires, and fireworks.
Cigarettes and matches should never be put out on the ground or disposed of in a trash can until you can hold the formerly hot end between your fingers.
Debris burning requires a permit from VIFR and following the safety rules. Make sure overhead trees are far enough away from the burn pile so the rising heat cannot ignite the trees. The area around the burn must be watered down and cleared of debris to control and extinguish sparks. When finished, thoroughly soak the pile of ashes and turn them over to soak again. Continue this until the ashes are cool. A hot ash pile can smolder for weeks and reignite at any time.
Camp and beach fires are prohibited at all Vashon parks and King County parks, except for a few designated and established picnic areas. Beach fires on non-park property are only permitted below the high tide line. Driftwood on the beaches is very flammable, so all fires should be kept 30 feet from driftwood piles. It is illegal in King County to use or remove driftwood, which provides shoreline armoring and wildlife habitat. Have a bucket and water handy to control and put out the beach fire. Fire pits on private property must follow the same safety regulations as for debris burning as previously noted.
Fourth of July fireworks are only legal from 9 a.m. to midnight that day. They are prohibited during the days and weeks before and after July Fourth. If you use fireworks on the Fourth, have a garden hose with water and a bucket handy, direct the fireworks away from flammable objects such as trees, houses and cars, and check to make sure the firework is not smoldering after use. For safety, use fireworks by or over water. Sending fireworks over a bluff into the woods or fields is dangerous, and can allow a fire to quickly spread up the hillside. Also, make sure that “spent” fireworks are dead out and cool before disposing of them in the trash. Last July Fourth week, VIFR responded to two fires in the Gold Beach area and a total of five for the island.
This Independence Day, concerned members of the Gold Beach NEROs association and the Friends of Maury Parks will operate fire watch patrols. The goal is early detection to improve response time if a fire were to occur and to prevent a small fire from getting out of control. Major factors unique to Vashon are the limited resources of VIFR and long delay, over an hour, of assistance from off-island fire departments.
If you see a fire, report it immediately by calling 9-1-1. Make the call — do not assume someone else reported the fire. Be sure to tell them you are on Vashon Island in King County and describe the exact location of the fire, using a nearby street address or landmark — cell phones and internet phone providers do not always provide accurate location information to the 9-1-1 operator.
For more information on wildfire prevention, see the FireWise document at VashonBePrepared.org or Vashon Fire and Rescue at VIFR.org or at FireWise.org.