Prevention Pays Off: Homeowner’s House, Trees Remain Intact in Williams Flats Fire

Long, destructive wildfire seasons can wreak havoc on unprotected homes. But contrary to what you may think, your house has a good chance of remaining intact in a wildfire if you follow the necessary precautions. The work of one Ferry County property owner helped firefighters save his home during the 2019 Williams Flats Fire, and saved many of the mature trees on his property, too.

In 2014, the landowner contacted the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Landowner Assistance (LOA) Program about precautionary steps he could take to increase his home’s wildfire resilience. LOA forester Michelle Ensminger, of DNR’s Northeast Regional Office, visited the 135-acre forested property to talk about the landowner’s goals for home protection.

Ensminger first walked around the home, providing suggestions to reduce the risk of ignition by ember showers. The majority of his property was populated by ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees that ranged from saplings to mature trees.

After the initial inspection, Ensminger gave him two main recommendations. First, to remove enough of the small trees so that the trees in the forest are spaced about 16 feet apart; doing so would reduce the risk of fire jumping from the branches of one tree to another. Second, she recommended removing lower branches and brush to reduce ladder fuels – meaning the chances of a ground fire climbing into tree tops would lessen.

before thinning
The property owner’s land before tree thinning projects were completed.
After thinning
The property owner’s land after tree thinning projects were completed.

With the help of the LOA Cost-Share Program, which pays part of the cost of thinning, pruning and clean-up, the landowner acted on the recommendations. The landowner completed thinning projects in 2014 and 2017 which covered 71.5 acres in total – more than half of his property.

The completion of these projects directly contributed to the preservation of his home during the Williams Flats Fire, officials say.

When the landowner’s property was evaluated, the work he had conducted was obvious. Ponderosa pine trees were spaced out and limbed up, and the amount of fuel on the ground had been reduced.

Solomon’s team came up with a plan to dig fire line around the home, tying in with the areas where the homeowner had done the work.

When the main fire was a couple hundred yards from the house, the crews started burning out the fuels in the treated area. The flame lengths were light at 2 to 3 feet, with no trees torching. In stark comparison, the untreated forest had flame lengths of 6 to 8 feet high with single trees and groups of trees torching, which helped spread embers.

Ground crews handled the fire within the treated area, and after it burned around the structure, it eventually moved back into untreated areas where it grew in intensity. This treatment, made by the landowner with assistance from the DNR, helped provide a safe area for firefighters to engage the Williams Flat Fire.

“Being proactive and doing fuels reduction treatment on their property allows us to be effective with the resources we had available,” Kurt Solomon, protection specialist for Incident Management Team 8, said.

LOA uses state capital funds and federal grants to offer financial assistance to landowners to thin forests, reduce the intensity of wildfires, and increase forest health.

The program is available for forestland owners in central and eastern Washington who have up to 5,000 acres of forest and want to make their forests healthier and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

For further assistance for those who live in Ferry, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Spokane or Stevens counties, call the Northeast Region office at (509) 684-7474. For residents of south-central and eastern Washington, call the Southeast Region office at (509) 925-8510. Ask to speak to a landowner assistance forester.