Editorials

Wildfires taking a heavy toll east of the mountains

They’ve seen their homes and property turned into ash and twisted pieces of metal. They’ve lost precious mementos, beloved family pets and livestock.

But Mother Nature has more to throw at folks in fire-ravaged north-central Washington. Now they’re having to contend with temperatures soaring into triple digits. That will only complicate efforts to fight wildfires that have laid waste to 390 square miles and destroyed an estimated 300 homes. The cost of fighting the fires has reached $50 million – so far.

In what passes for good news, the winds won’t be as threatening as they’ve been. High winds were a major factor in spreading the flames and within the space of a single day turning a fairly routine wildfire – the lightning-sparked Carlton Complex – into the worst conflagration in state history.

Fire crews are hoping the lull in winds will give them a chance to contain the wildfires – or at least keep them from destroying more homes. Theirs is a tough, dirty, dangerous job. Unfortunately they don’t just have the flames to consider; they’re also catching heat from many residents who think they should have acted more quickly to save property. Emotions are running high; it’s natural for people who have lost so much to lash out.

Their accusations will be addressed in a review promised by Gov. Jay Inslee. At this point, it’s hard to second-guess fire crew commanders whose first responsibility is to safeguard human lives: As of this writing, no firefighters’ lives have been reported lost.

That wasn’t the case in the 2001 Thirtymile Fire, in which a squad boss and three young firefighters were killed not too far from where current wildfires rage. That tragedy still weighs heavily on those who fight the state’s treacherous wildfires.

In the aftermath of Thirtymile, U.S. Fire Service supervisors were criticized for poor decisions they made, and one was found guilty of lying to investigators about his actions. Little wonder supervisors might err on the side of protecting their crews.

There’s nothing new about wildfires in drought-prone, hard-to-reach places east of the mountains. It’s unknown whether the changing weather patterns brought on by climate change played any role in this season’s blazes, but they very well might make wildfires even more of a threat in years to come as Washington’s temperatures are expected to rise and snowpack levels to fall.

Homeowners in drought-prone areas have a responsibility to do all they can to lower their risk, primarily by creating a “defensible space” relatively clear of trees and shrubs for about 30 feet around structures. In the end, though, wildfires are acts of nature that often defy all human attempts to control them.

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