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Fearing a catastrophic fire

Inmates from the state prison in Monroe are shown clearing brush and pruning trees in order to create a fire break between Moran State Park and private housing communities. The inmates are working four days a week on Orcas Island. They are expected to complete the task by the end of April. - Ted Grossman  staff photo
Inmates from the state prison in Monroe are shown clearing brush and pruning trees in order to create a fire break between Moran State Park and private housing communities. The inmates are working four days a week on Orcas Island. They are expected to complete the task by the end of April.
— image credit: Ted Grossman staff photo

Bill Schmidt picks up a branch and easily snaps it in two with his bare hands.

Max Jones watches closely, then says, “Things are very volatile. This is like July and August, and it’s just April.”

Schmidt, a consultant for the state Department of Natural Resources, and Jones, public safety officer with the Orcas Island Fire Department, are concerned that Orcas could be hit with a catastrophic fire this summer. They’re also fearful that islanders won’t believe them, and will ignore the problem until it is too late.

No matter what local people may think, professional firefighters say there is good reason to be proactive. An analysis of five counties in Northwest Washington revealed that the county most like to be hit with a major fire is San Juan.

Catastrophic fires have hit both the west side of the Cascades, and the San Juan Islands before, although not as frequently as east of the mountains. Back in the 1930s, there was a gigantic fire that started on Orcas Island, near Obstruction Pass. It jumped across the water, all the way to Obstruction Island, because the area was extremely dry, and the winds were blowing in the direction of Obstruction. Back then, however, there weren’t nearly as many homes in the path of the fire.

Both state government and the local fire department are now trying to do something while there is still time. They are also informing property owners about steps each household can take to lessen the likelihood of a fire destroying their properties when the hot, dry season comes.

The state, meanwhile, is building a one to one and one-half mile long and 100 foot wide fire break on an OPALCO powerline easement at the boundary of Moran State Park and alongside residential communities in the Orcas Highlands and Vusario. “It’s intended to prevent fires from entering or leaving the park,” Schmidt said.

The fire break is being paid for with state and federal monies, and consists of pruning trees and clearing brush. The work is being carried out by 20 inmates from the state penitentiary in Monroe. They are being supervised by two members of DNR, plus two guards with the state Department of Corrections. Schmidt described the inmates as “good workers who are close to being released.”

They are being paid a small amount. It would cost at least $25 an hour to hire from within the working population, he says.

The project will take four weeks to complete, and should be done by the end of April. The inmates are on island four days a week, working 10-hour days.

They are brought into Eastsound for breakfasts and dinners. They eat lunches on site. All the meals, including lunches, are being provided by Sue’s Cafe (the former A-1), Mihalcea’s and Vern’s Bayside. When asked if the meal orders have helped local businesses, Vern’s Bayside manager Debbie Melvin exclaimed, “Oh, definitely!” She also said the inmates have been “nice people, easy to wait on.”

The project has also thrilled Moran State Park Manager Dennis Flowers. “It’s a pretty sweet deal,” he said. The park is contributing the campsite and fuel for the saws. The state parks department represents another player in this inter-agency effort to prevent fires.

There are things home owners can do

The local fire department, meanwhile, is encouraging islanders to take steps to protect their properties from the threat of fire. The department has prepared a list of things homeowners should be doing to their driveways, grounds, homes, etc. It’s a lengthy list of 20 items that include such things as clearing vegetation, pruning trees, getting leaves and needles off the roof and, perhaps most importantly, preparing an escape route.

Jones has discussed these steps with the Buck Mountain Homeowners Association, and she is offering to do the same with any other groups of homeowners eager to learn more about what they can do to limit fire danger. She says, “Prevention dollars go further than suppression dollars.”

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