Will the tragic Lahaina fire on Maui change islanders’ perspective on the decisively rejected fire levy? Is Orcas at risk like Maui? I see lots of heavy fuel on Orcas, dry most summers, unlike years past. Why is heavy fuel important? Dense trees, thick undergrowth and ground cover and yes, wood homes are raw meat for fires. Big fires require fuel and are magnified by high temperature, low humidity, wind and terrain, especially steep slopes. Forest fires are a seasonal hazard, increasing in severity and potentially worse than Maui Island. I’m acutely aware of heavy fuel loads on Orcas because, for eight fire seasons, I fought many wildland fires large and small in several western states.
Historically big forest fires in Pacific Northwest were rare, but when coastal forest burned, they burned big. One August a coastal fire in Oregon burned 355,000 acres, an area seven times the size of Orcas.
Structural fires will continue as the primary responsibility of expanding with every new home. But wildland fires are a real threat, requiring trained forest fire crews, upgrading equipment, public education on home defense and much more.
When a wildfire begins to blow up, or “crown” driven by wind and awesome power from heavy dry fuel and incredible heat, firefighters on the ground are no longer in control. They can not rush in and protect a beautiful home in front of such a fire. The fire is in control. Based on my experience, sharing lessons from veteran fire fighters and reading about big fire blowups I’ve been impressed with time and fire emergencies. Time is a growing issue as heavy fuel fires burn faster, hotter and can rapidly devour trees, homes and lives. When a fire starts to crown and run, time is compressed and danger rushes toward homes, equipment and anyone in its path.
In the days since Lahaina burned the blame game has begun to identify those responsible. This is a common and unfortunate process following most disasters.
Hopefully, Orcas Islanders have time to support our fire department with a vote on the next levy. The outcome determines the quality of our fire department and its ability to meet new island challenges. A blame game is always late. And we may not have the time we think we have to protect our island quality.