‘Housekeeping’ Helps in Fire Protection

Take Precautions to Protect Yourself and Your Home from Risks of Wildfire

Fire rages along a hillside
Fire rages along a hillside near structures in the 2014 Rowena fire. Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue photo

For every day of moisture-sucking wind and heat that passes in The Dalles, the risk of wildfire grows.

For residents in the Northern Wasco County PUD service area, “housekeeping” is the biggest key to reducing the risk of wildfire. And that goes for both urban and rural residents.

July had quite a few hot, dry days, a prelude to the usual triple-digit weather of August.

In addition, lots of winter and spring moisture encouraged the growth of fire fuels—the other key element in a wildfire season equation.

“We had a lot of snow and moisture in the mountains and that went into spring,” says Fire Chief Bob Palmer of MidColumbia Fire and Rescue. “That allows for a longer growing season and there are taller fuels now, whereas in years past— three to five, even 10 years back—we’ve been in a drought.”

Fuels are greener underneath this year, but the fire dangers are still present.

And every hot, dry day increases the risk.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the city or outside the city in the wild-land-urban interface if you’ve got fuel that can move into the house or structure,” Bob says.

Fire risk can depend on what is stored around houses and structures, as well as the presence of grasses and tall weeds.

Fire Chief Bob Palmer urges homeowners
Fire Chief Bob Palmer urges homeowners to practice good housekeeping to prevent fires.

“A lot of people don’t take care of their yards,” Bob says. “They let them dry out and grow up. Some of the yards can actually look like rural areas.”

A few tall weeds close to a home, trailer, garage, or car can mean the difference between a fire-catching hold or not. If you have more than one of those items, you can end up with multiple structures burning at one time, he says.

“And given, once again, the weather conditions right now, the winds can carry fire aggressively.”

Another piece of fire prevention is fire awareness. Open burning and burn barrels are banned right now, but fireworks, kids playing with things that can cause fire, hot car undercarriages, and catalytic converters, all can create fire risks. And some things can’t be predicted—a car that loses a tire can shoot sparks into dry grass alongside the freeway, starting a wildfire.

Being aware of the potential for fire is critical.

Fire protection, inside and outside the city, is about creating a defensible space around structures—a buffer area between fire fuels and structures. That starts with a green area around buildings and good maintenance to reduce ladder fuels.

“If you have trees, pine trees, and oak trees, you need to thin out underneath so you don’t have ladder fuels,” Bob says.

Ladder fuels can carry fire from the ground into tree crowns, where the fire has more risk of carrying on the wind.

Also eliminate the potential for ember traps, areas where embers from a passing fire can settle and grow slowly, sparking a second fire. Unenclosed decks are one example of where embers can hide.

Ready, Set, Go

When fire danger gets close to home, evacuation may be necessary. When that time arrives, MidColumbia Fire and Rescue follows the “Ready, Set, Go” approach to evacuation:

  • Stage One, or “Ready,” is a warning to get everything ready to go. Gather any belongings you want to take with you and make sure residents are prepared to leave. Make arrangements to move property and livestock
  • Stage Two, or “Set,” means the likelihood of evacuation has increased. Be sure vehicles are packed and residents are ready to go at a moment’s notice.
  • Stage Three, or “Go,” means it’s time to leave now.

“We’re not going to ask people to leave unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Bob says. “And some people will choose to stay, but we encourage people to go because we know it’s dangerous. We will do everything we can to protect somebody’s property, as long as it’s safe for us as well. That’s a lot easier if the homeowner makes it safe before we even get there.”

In addition to defensible space, that means making sure entrances and exits are cleared of tree limbs and other obstacles so that fire apparatus can safely get in and out. Two ways out are better than one.

“If you only have one way out, it needs to be cleared,” Bob says. Firefighters evaluate the safety of each situation. “If there’s only one way out and it’s not clear, it’s going to be one where we may make a decision to let it burn by and come back in afterward.”

MidColumbia’s wild-land firefighters carry water to fire sites in fire tenders, shuttling water back and forth from water sources to the scene. However, they welcome the availability of water sources—pools, cisterns, pumps, etc.— closer to the action.

“Some people will have actual pumps that we can fill at,” Bob says.

Anyone with a water source is welcome to contact MidColumbia Fire and Rescue before a fire breaks out so firefighters can evaluate and make sure they are able to appropriately use the water source.

Utilities Play a Role

Utilities like Northern Wasco County PUD, Wasco Electric, and Northwest Natural often play a support role during wildfires.

“If we get exposure to power lines, etc., we will certainly call PUD and let them know the power lines are exposed or the poles are exposed,” Bob says.

Power lines can present dangers during wildfires.

“Smoke will conduct electricity,” Bob says. “If you get the right circumstances and are standing under a power line, you can get an arc from the line down to the ground. So we’re very cognizant, especially with high-tension power lines.

Natural gas lines, fuel tanks, and propane tanks can also present dangers. Bob urges property owners to make sure areas around tanks are clear of flammable debris and weeds.

“We try to work hand in hand with MidColumbia Fire and Rescue and other responders,” says Paul Titus, Assistant Manager and Director of Engineering.

PUD personnel now have access to a pickup-mounted tank and hose sprayer, which allows them to get into and out of areas that are more difficult to access. They also take fire training.

“It’s for the safety of our personnel so they won’t get into a situation where they can get trapped, and so they can also work hand in hand with other agencies responding,” Paul says.

Contact MidColumbia Fire and Rescue at (541) 296-9445 for more information about wildfire prevention and safety.