Growing Concerns: Landscaping saves lives, property

According to the Whidbey Island Conservation District, the entire island is designated as at “high or extreme” risk of wildfire, and this year’s fire season shows above normal fire potential in the Pacific Northwest.

Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a drought emergency in March, based on indications that this summer, Washington will experience its worst drought since 1977.

Oregon State University and U.S. Forest Service bio-climatologists have an even more dire prediction, projecting that drought severity in the Pacific Northwest could reach levels rivaling the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Although spring rains have offered some relief, it’s a case of too little, too late.

The mountain snowpack is well below normal, with no chance of improvement until next winter. Spring came early this year, with higher-than-normal temperatures, so vegetation is growing rampantly and will dry out more quickly, setting the stage for wildfire.

Despite ever-increasing development, much of Whidbey Island remains forested. Many of us make our homes in or at the edge of woodlands, surrounded by tall conifers and a thick understory of shrubs. After all, isn’t that the essence of the Pacific Northwest? And besides, wildfires seldom strike here. They’re more of a Southern California thing, right?

I used to think so. During my former career, work took me up and down the West Coast, from the Aleutian Islands to San Diego. I usually lived in a location for two or three years, then transferred to another site. Twice I resided in the San Francisco Bay Area, both times choosing to make my home in the Oakland Hills, on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

I loved the narrow, winding roads that snaked up heavily wooded slopes and plunged into deep, misty, box canyons. Quirky old homes and slick modern residences were secluded by oaks, Monterey pines and towering eucalyptus trees, offering privacy and a feeling of country living just a few miles from city amenities.

It was cool and moist in those hills; fog swirled in from the Bay almost every night, and mornings were drenched with dew. I frequently removed moss from the long flight of charmingly lopsided stone steps that led to my front door.

But like Western Washington, the area received most of its rainfall in the winter, and experienced dry summers. It occurred to me that a fire truck would have difficulty navigating the steep, narrow streets punctuated by switchbacks and cul de sacs, but the thought of wildfire sweeping my ever-damp neighborhood never entered my mind.

In October 1991, long after I had moved away, a devastating firestorm raced through the Oakland and Berkeley hills. Fueled by drought-stricken trees, including the highly volatile eucalyptus, stoked by low humidity, higher-than average temperatures and gusty winds, the fire turned into a major conflagration. Emergency vehicles had extreme difficulty traversing the meandering, smoke-filled roads, many of them blocked by the cars of fleeing residents.

When it was over, 25 people had died and 150 more were injured. A staggering 3,469 homes and apartments were either destroyed or badly damaged. More than 1,500 acres burned, and the estimated fire loss was $1,537,000,000.

Could it happen on Whidbey Island? Federal, state and local fire managers believe it could, and are gearing up for a long, hot summer. But there are measures you can take to help make your rural home and property less vulnerable to wildfire.

One of the main things you can do is to reduce the amount of fire-prone vegetation on your lot, and landscape with fire-resistant plants. All plants will burn if conditions are right, but some are more volatile than others. Known as pyrophytes, they usually share these characteristics: Leaves that are stiff, woody, small, fine or needle-like, contain volatile oils, are aromatic when crushed, have gummy sap, loose or papery bark, or fine, dry or dead material within the plant.

Conifers (especially junipers) are particularly vulnerable due to their high resin content, and should not be planted next to structures. Branches that overhang roofs should be removed. Needles, cones, and other debris should be cleared from roofs and gutters.

Other hazardous plants include bamboo, scotch broom, pampas, Himalayan blackberries, ocean spray and any dry or dead shrubs, trees and grass.

Create a 30-foot safety zone around your home. It should be as free of potential fuel as possible. Decorative river rock, gravel or a regularly-mown lawn are good choices. If rock or gravel seem unappealing, think of the interesting ways these materials are used in classical Japanese gardens.

Prune both deciduous and evergreen tree limbs eight to 10 feet from the ground to eliminate fuel ladders. Pruning height can be varied so trees are more natural looking. Reduce the number of shrubs under trees and in non-irrigated portions of your lot. Thin trees so that there is at least 10 feet between tree crowns; clean up the remaining debris. Consider removing trees that are in contact with structures. Remove branches overhanging the roof. Keep firewood and brush piles stacked 30 feet away and uphill from homes. Clear excess vegetation from your driveway to allow emergency vehicle access, and make sure your address is clearly visible from the road.

To obtain more wildfire prevention tips, go to or obtain informational pamphlets from Whidbey Island Conservation District, 404 NE Center St., Coupeville, (360) 678-4708.

Mariana Graham writes this biweekly column as a volunteer WSU-Island County Master Gardener. Contact her at

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