It’s like late summer 2012 all over again, when smoke from nearby wildfires blew into the Yakima Valley, choked the air, forced burning restrictions and led to the cancellation of sporting events.
As we enter August 2013, bookend fires near Satus Pass and in the Wenatchee area again are compromising the air we breathe in the Yakima and Kittitas valleys. Yakima County is under a stage 1 burn ban, and the air pollution readings have reached an unhealthy level in many parts of the Valley. The pollution is bad enough that even healthy residents are urged to restrict outdoor activities. Children, older residents and those with heart and lung disease especially need to avoid heavy exertion.
That’s just one aspect of citizen awareness as we enter the peak of fire season, when humidity is low, temperatures are high and foliage is dry. High winds and the possibility of lightning from thunderstorms can prompt the National Weather Service to declare an aptly named red flag warning. For firefighting agencies, this means a heightened capacity for mobilizing firefighters and their equipment; for the rest of us, this means being very careful when we venture into the forest or brush.
A hot auto engine, a spark from machinery, embers from a campfire, even a discarded cigarette can start a fast-moving, catastrophic blaze. Last August, welding sparks on State Route 10 are believed to have touched off the Taylor Bridge fire, which burned 36 square miles and destroyed more than 60 homes in Kittitas County. In June of this year, a 16-year-old boy playing with a lighter accidentally started a fire that endangered homes in Selah. Not long after, a luminaria lantern was blamed for setting a fire that burned much of Selah Ridge up to Lookout Point.
For homeowners living in fire-prone areas, the best preventive steps are taken long before the season arrives. But even now, some actions can help. The Washington state Department of Natural Resources recommends a roof and deck of nonflammable material, a wide fire break for property abutting grasslands, keeping vegetation around the house — including the lawn — low and green, using crushed rock as mulch next to the house and keeping vegetation trimmed so the fire department can get access to your house.
Steps for homeowners living in the forest include clearing flammable debris and vegetation within 30 feet of a home; thinning trees to about 20 feet apart; keeping the gutters clear; having a metal roof; cutting back tree branches that touch a roof; not letting plants or other flammable material come in contact with the house; and heeding all burn bans. More safety tips are at www.firewise.org.
And, tragically, the Valley has seen dangerous house fires within the past week. In Sunnyside, a mother of five was killed in a fire after she ran back into her burning house to make sure all of her children had made it out. They were outside, but she was trapped in an upstairs room. Over the weekend in Yakima, firefighters rescued two men from a burning duplex. One was confined to a wheelchair, and the other was trying to help him; firefighters said if two more minutes had passed, the men would have died.
The Sunnyside and Yakima fires point to the need for home and apartment occupants to practice fire safety. The U.S. Fire Administration, an arm of FEMA, recommends at least one working smoke alarm in every home, practicing an escape plan with everyone in a household, and making sure circuits and extension cords aren’t overloaded. More information is available at www.usfa.fema.gov/citizens/home_fire_prev.
It is already a serious fire season, and we still have a couple of months to go. It’s up to everyone to keep it from getting worse.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.