In Drier Washington State, Fire Chiefs Say Wildfires Could Scorch Any City The state is grappling with the growing phenomenon of the "urban wildfire." That's when blazes that ignite in forests spread rapidly into recently built subdivisions and whole towns.

In Drier Washington State, Fire Chiefs Say Wildfires Could Scorch Any City

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The state of Washington is wrestling with a new and growing threat. They call it an urban wildfire. That's when a blaze that ignites in a forest spreads into nearby subdivisions and even whole towns. That have been built out into the woods. Until recently, this wasn't really on the radar for the typically wet state. But NPR's Kirk Siegler reports the historic drought in the Pacific Northwest is changing that.

PETER GOLDMARK: You kept it on the west side of that trail.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Washington's commissioner of public lands, Peter Goldmark, is getting a briefing in a field across from a charred, rocky hillside on the outskirts of Spokane, the state's second-largest city. I was here for a post-game on the recent little Spokane fire, a relatively small blaze that had huge potential for destruction until initial attack crews from his agency put it out.

GOLDMARK: And obviously the proximity of the homes is one of the many reasons why we worked so hard and effectively on this particular fire.

SIEGLER: In recent years, Spokane has expanded into these forests. There are now thousands of homes, expensive subdivisions, golf courses, shopping centers, all in the middle of forests that are tinder-dry thanks to this historic drought. It poses all kinds of logistical challenges.

GOLDMARK: In a rugged terrain like we're seeing here in Little Spokane, you can't use fire trucks. You can't use dozers. You can use hand lines, but they can't put the fire out.

SIEGLER: The worry here was that the fire could easily spread into the city of Spokane and its avenues lined with towering Ponderosa pine trees. The growing threat of an urban wildfire is why Goldmark's agency is ramping up its aerial firefighting fleet this summer. They added three new single-engine air tankers and a new helicopter. He's worried it won't be enough, though.

GOLDMARK: We need more resources to deal with this emerging threat of really hot conditions, which make our many communities at risk.

SIEGLER: Well, there's precedent for this new type of wildfire in other typically drier western states. In recent years, wildfires wiped out whole neighborhoods in Colorado Springs and San Diego County in a matter of hours. Now, you talk to a lot of fire chiefs here, and they'll tell you that this may be the future for Washington too.

JOHN SINCLAIR: What is happening is that we're getting - our climate is getting closer to Southern California.

SIEGLER: Across the state on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, John Sinclair heads up Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue.

SINCLAIR: I mean, it sounds crazy. It sounds crazy to me as I say it. The issue is - is that's what's happening. And we're seeing significant amounts of fires in places where we're never seen fires before.

SIEGLER: It's Sinclair's job to suppress fires across a 270 square mile jurisdiction. This includes several small cities and scores of recently built subdivisions in dense pine and Douglas fir forests. Sinclair says a lot of these neighborhoods have been slow to clear out brush and fuel around homes. It just wasn't really on the radar until recently.

SINCLAIR: I'm not a climatologist, so I don't know exactly what's driving it. But I know what the outcome is.

SIEGLER: And like in Spokane, Sinclair has already had a few too-close-for-comfort brushes with urban fires this summer.

SINCLAIR: This - and these folks had shake roofs.

SIEGLER: And a three minute drive from his station on the edge of Ellensburg, there's a condo missing its roof. A maple tree and row of juniper bushes is also charred black.

SINCLAIR: You can see the heat damage that broke out their windows.

SIEGLER: The culprit, a brush fire likely caused by a tossed-out cigarette butt. It ignited in the prairie across the street and easily jumped over here.

SINCLAIR: That's the kind of thing, in a very urban environment, that with this kind of vegetation it goes so quickly 'cause it's so dry...

SIEGLER: Luckily, firefighters were here in minutes. But Sinclair says it was a wake-up call. There should be a sense of urgency around wildfire mitigation and prevention in a year like this.

SINCLAIR: Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a disaster to really capture the community's attention.

SIEGLER: And disasters are happening. And some of these wildfires frankly just aren't going to be stopped. They're burning so hot and intense.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're coming to dinner, right?

CINDY DOMINGUEZ: Yeah, we're coming.

SIEGLER: A few weeks ago, a wildfire raced up a hill and into Cindy and Jonathan Dominguez's neighborhood on the western edge of Wenatchee.

SIEGLER: And where were you guys at the time?

C. DOMINGUEZ: Right here, trying to get...

JONATHAN DOMINGUEZ: Trying to get some stuff out.

SIEGLER: It didn't just burn their house. It turned it into a pile of ash. There's nothing left. And this is a city street. There are fire hydrants. There are only a few trees here and there, carefully manicured lawns. The blaze burned more than 30 other structures before firefighters could get it contained.

C. DOMINGUEZ: It didn't matter because they caught on fire in town. I mean, the packing plant caught on fire. Huge embers, our neighbors told us, were just flying overhead.

SIEGLER: Embers drifting a mile across town igniting fruit warehouses, the worst-case scenario and hardly what people around here used to think of as a typical forest fire. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Wenatchee, Wash.

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