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Busting Myths about Wildfire Risk in Western Washington

April 16, 2020

We usually think of Western Washington as wet or at least damp, putting it at low risk for wildfires. But a reputation for rainy weather is not, unfortunately, protection against wildfires.

Recent events illustrate this point. In March 2019, 49 wildfires burned in southwest Washington, charring hundreds of acres and leading to evacuations.1 And in 2015, Olympic National Park, home to a temperate rain forest, experienced the largest wildfire in park history.2 

More fires may be coming. The latest forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center says that Western Washington faces an above-normal chance of significant wildfires through at least July 2019.3 

Together, the forecast and recent fires help bust the myth that Western Washington is immune to wildfires and serve as a good reminder that we all need to do what we can to prepare for wildfire season. Preparation starts with understanding, so before we talk about resources to help you protect your home, let’s bust three more myths about wildfire preparedness. 

A home burning amidst treesHomes in Western Washington can burn in a wildfire, despite the region's reputation for rainy weather. 

 

Related:
Underwriting Property: A Guide to Fire, Wildfire and Earthquake Risk

 

Myth 1: My home will only catch on fire from flames burning right up to the structure. 

Fact: Research shows that embers — bits of airborne burning vegetation — are a primary cause of homes catching on fire.4 Embers often travel far ahead of flames, as far as a mile or more, and can land near your home on combustible material and start a fire.  

What counts as combustible? Some combustible items are easy to think of: piles of firewood or mulch bark, for example, or fallen leaves and pine needles. But did you know lawn furniture with foam cushions is combustible? If an ember lands on those cushions, it will burn and burn hot.  

Embers can also enter your home through vents and open windows or doors and ignite. They will just as easily get inside a car through an open window and set the vehicle on fire. 

 

Related:
Embers, Wind and Fire: A Dangerous Mix

 

Myth 2: The fire department will be able to protect my home, even during a large wildfire.  

Fact: In many wildfires, most homes are protected and saved, but some wildfires grow so large with such intensity that the fire department may not have enough resources to protect every home.

Extremely large wildfires can outpace firefighting resources from multiple departments. In the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, firefighters from around the state and other states, including Washington,5 united to battle the blaze not just on the ground but from the air. Still, the fire claimed 85 lives and destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings.6  

An important factor in determining if firefighters can and will protect your home during a wildfire is how well your home is prepared for one. 

Myth 3: I only need to take steps to protect my home from wildfires once a year.  

Fact: Wildfire preparedness is not a once-and-done project; it’s an ongoing process. Maintaining your home and the space around it is just one part of that process. Also important are practicing your emergency response plans with your family and keeping your insurance policy updated in case you need to file a claim.  

How to protect your home from wildfires 

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes a suite of tools you can use to prepare your home for wildfires, including checklists and guides. Visit the NFPA’s Firewise USA website to learn more. 

The NFPA also sponsors Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. The event is an opportunity for you to prepare your own home and help your neighbors. For example, you could remove dry leaves from around an elderly couple’s home or develop a phone tree so anyone can alert the community about a fire or evacuation.  

Wildfire Community Preparedness Day is an ideal time to put in place practices you’ll follow throughout fire season to help protect your home, such as pruning the low-hanging branches on mature trees and cleaning leaves and pine needles from on and around your home.  

Preparing your home for wildfire season may soon be easier in Washington state 

New Washington regulations allow insurance companies to provide consumers goods and services that can help mitigate property risks, including wildfire, theft, water leaks and more. The Office of the Insurance Commissioner is still working out some details of the new rules, so if you are a consumer, check with your agent to see how the regulations may benefit you.  

If you are an agent, underwriter or other insurance-industry professional, WSRB has produced a white paper for you about these new regulations, introduced in Washington State Substitute House Bill 2322. Click here to download the white paper. 


Robert Ferrell, P.E. is WSRB’s Vice President of Public Protection. He leads the team that manages the insurance rating of cities, fire districts and building departments throughout Washington state. He has more than 25 years of experience in fire insurance rating. 

[1] Auburn Reporter, https://www.auburn-reporter.com/news/western-washington-faces-elevated-wildfire-risk-in-2019/

[2] The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/13/the-west-is-so-dry-even-a-rainforest-is-on-fire/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.583fcce5f882

[3] National Interagency Fire Center, https://www.predictiveservices.nifc.gov/outlooks/outlooks.htm

[4] National Fire Protection Association, https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/By-topic/Wildfire/Preparing-homes-for-wildfire

[5] KOMO News, https://komonews.com/news/local/local-firefighters-begin-to-arrive-in-california-to-help-fight-ferocious-wildfires

[6] ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/US/california-wildfires-numbers-closer-devastating-blazes/story?id=59136812

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