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  • Jon Riley

Observations After Red Apple

A vast area surrounding Wenatchee homes is now black resulting from one of the most aggressive fires we've fought in recent years. Driving through the Red Apple fire area and around Sunnyslope you can appreciate how close we came to losing that fight. In many cases you'll see black, scorched earth just feet from structures, but the fire front or "wall of flames" did not result in the loss of a single structure. While miraculous, it is consistent with research and post-fire analysis findings of why homes burn. 80% - 85% of homes lost to wildfire are from ember ignitions, not the tsunami like flames washing over a home we imagine.

What's more, we didn't loose a single home to ember ignition. I attribute this to a shared responsibility 1) homeowners doing their part and 2) the amazing response we received from our staff and partners. Focusing on the homeowners, here's a few observations that contributed to our success defending against embers in Sunnyslope. Recently constructed homes are using materials like cement board siding, composite decking, asphalt roofing and vent openings that are adequately screened with 1/8th inch metal mesh. The first 5 feet of modern landscapes favor cement walkways, and patios over bark mulch and vegetation. Remember, fire is always looking for a receptive fuel bed and a pathway to grow. Combined, these elements eliminated much of the risk embers posed to homes that night.

There was a maintenance component at work as well. Fine, dry debris (leaves, pine needles, etc.) present the perfect fuel bed for an ember ignition. Think of those wilderness survival videos showing you how to rub a stick between your hands fast enough to create a small coal then placed in a bird's nest like ball of dry material. Wind drives debris and embers alike into gutters, under decks, and along a home's foundation leaving behind fuel and an ignition source in the same place at the same time. Recessed corners are commonly pointed out as places to clean up. In less technical words, the areas where a building's outline or footprint takes a step back (like a front porch) or makes a directional change from one wall to another. Here are a few photos of ash and embers deposited by the wind during the fire demonstrating just how important is it to implement the designs described above and keep these areas clean.

The proof of practice is on the hillside. We faced overwhelming odds stopping the Red Apple fire. Contributing to our success were homeowners building with the right materials, incorporating defensible space design, and keeping up on maintenance - the leaf piles. Where defensible space and building construction were less favorable, we saw a tremendous show of force, resources we're not always fortunate to have. It's not a matter of if but when the next fire occurs.

Having one of our staff out for a home assessment is a great opportunity to learn more about preparing your home for wildfire. Our thanks to the Ryans for getting us out for a visit, and doing their part in sharing the responsibility.

Ash and embers deposited on the leeward side of the house during the Red Apple fire. Construction materials, design and maintenance prevented an ignition from occurring.


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