Wildfire smoke

Smoke drifted through the woods near Cathlamet last week.

In this normally damp coastal zone where we measure seasonal rainfall in feet rather than inches and where some groves have survived unscathed for centuries, serious forest fires nearly always are someone else’s problem. This year could be different.

Occasional showers in recent days do little more than dampen so-called one-hour fuels — things like dune grass that can be dry enough to catch fire after only an hour of rain-free breeze. South Pacific County currently is running half a foot or more below the same period in 2018, which itself wasn’t exceptionally wet. We’ve already had temperatures unofficially edging into the 80s on the Long Beach Peninsula. More warm, dry conditions are predicted for the remainder of spring.

Although we aren’t in a drought, the story is much the same throughout Cascadia, the area west of the Cascades normally as wet as a soggy cookie floating in a teacup.

Recent rain moistens the grass and other quick-drying fuel sources, but does little to alleviate concerns of wildfire managers, who are beginning to warn of what could be a dangerous summer ahead. Wahkiakum County last week imposed a remarkably early ban on outdoor burning. In fact, rains now may do little but add to the problem by encouraging more luxuriant growth of vegetation that will become like tinder if we have our typical summer-fall dry spell.

We do sometimes have wet summers following dry springs, and this still could keep conditions from becoming too combustible. Perhaps more likely, though, are conditions like last year when July precipitation was 78 percent below normal.

Our Columbia River counties are thickly forested, with vast stands of valuable commercial timber, parks and — most worrisome in a dry year — many homes mingled among the woods. Many of these homes are closely surrounded by increasingly dry trees. Now is the time to practice some self-defensive vegetation management.

Most of us appreciate the trees and plants we live with, and are loath to make changes, but rural residents need to examine their homesteads in light of wildfire danger.

To create a “fire-wise” landscape, you must remember that the primary goal is fuel reduction with zones of increasing safety nearest your home. Local fire departments can provide full details, but at a minimum homeowners should create a well-irrigated area encircling their structure for at least 30 feet on all sides, providing space for fire suppression equipment in the event of an emergency. Plantings should be limited to carefully spaced low-flammability plants.

More plants are appropriate outside this zone, but still should be kept low and tidy. Selectively prune and thin all plants and remove highly flammable vegetation.

Northwest forests on both the west and east sides probably need similar maintenance, and it’s a shame this remains caught up in divisive battles. Forest thinning and removal of dead or diseased trees has sometimes been used as a pretext to avoid environmental rules, but President Trump wasn’t wrong in suggesting that common sense forest management can help moderate wildfire danger.

Some environmental groups and logging firms do our forests and the public a disservice when they politicize management decisions that should be based on safety and long-term forest health.

On the Peninsula, beach pines deserve an intelligent second look wherever they grow in close proximity to homes. Rigorous enforcement of fireworks and campfire restrictions will also be essential in this year that threatens to be one for the record books.

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