Recent rainfall isn't enough to make up for many dry months

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 radically different.

Rain in the past few days has brought the Peninsula's precipitation up a bit, but in only three of the past 12 months has rainfall been above average. Some months have been as low as 8 percent of average.

Rainfall in Long Beach is about 9 inches less than the same period a year earlier. In Naselle, the shortage is 15 inches.

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 local fire chiefs, who are beginning to warn of what could be a dangerous summer ahead. In fact, rains now may do little but add to the problem by encouraging more luxuriant growth of vegetation that will become like tender 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 has become caught up in divisive battles. Too often, forest thinning and removal of dead or diseased trees has been used as a pretext to avoid environmental rules.

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.

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