October 1991 – A storm of wildfire wreaked havoc in eastern Washington

Wildfire approaches housing development
With more people living in or near wildfire zones, such as forests and scrublands, it’s important for homeowners to learn how to reduce wildfire risks to their property.

Imagine 62 miles-per-hour wind gusts blowing in your neighborhood.

Twenty-eight years ago, Washington state experienced the fire of the century, titled ‘Fire Storm’ because that’s exactly what took place. The conditions were just right to create the perfect storm.

On October 16, 1991, 62 mph wind gusts were recorded in eastern Washington. The forests, brush, and grasslands were extremely dry. Because of a harsh combination of dry, unseasonably warm, and windy conditions, 92 wildfires quickly started.

Approximately 90% of the fires started because gale-force winds snapped power lines or trees fell into power lines.

During this time, northeast Washington was in the midst of high population growth. Many more homes were built in what we call the wildland urban interface (WUI), where homes and forest mix. These homes presented a challenge for firefighters; the majority of structures lost to wildfire were located in the WUI. One fatality occurred during the fire and 114 homes and numerous other structures were destroyed. Wildfires have become more disastrous as people move into the WUI.

Lessons learned and state mobilization established

Homeowners affected by Fire Storm were caught with a lack of knowledge about the wildfire risks where they lived. As a result, the National Fire Protection Association developed Firewise, a program to educate and assist homeowners in protecting themselves from wildfire. Firewise created a website for a national audience to provide the best available information on home wildfire safety. The website provides popular videos and instructional materials for nurseries, landscape professionals, and home owners.

Research dating back to the 1960s shows that the two major risk factors for homes during wildfires are:

  • A flammable roof, vulnerable to the embers thrown during a wildfire
  • Vegetation close to a house that generates enough heat or flames to ignite siding or other parts of the home

During Fire Storm, local firefighting resources were overwhelmed with the number of fires. As a result, the State Mobilization Plan was created. The plan quickly and efficiently brings in Washington Fire Service personnel and equipment from around the state when a wildfire exceeds a local fire department’s capacities.

These resources can include fire engines, firefighters, aircraft, heavy equipment and Incident Management Teams. These teams – part of the National Incident Management System – are made up of Department of Natural Resources, federal and fire service personnel.

Check out the mobilization process that is under the authority of the Washington State Patrol.

Fire Storm has resulted in a greater local and statewide awareness of the problems associated with people living in the wildland urban interface.

For more information, read the Fire Storm 1991 Case Study

Quick facts about Fire Storm 1991

Maximum wind gust: 62 mph
Homes destroyed: 114
Acres burned: 35,000
Homes threatened: 511
Separate fires: 92
Firefighters at fire: 4,000
Fire engines responding: 400
Fatalities: 1
Largest single fire: 13,840 acres
9-1-1 calls received, first 24 hours: 3,000