FRASER VALLEY —Officials at East Grand Fire Protection District No. 4, which serves the Fraser Valley, have updated the district’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan from the last version of the document that was created in 2007.
The updated document recognizes the successes of the extensive beetle-killed tree mitigation work that has been completed in the area, though still ranks some of the communities in the Fraser Valley, like Winter Park Highlands and Hurd Creek, as extreme in regard to the fire district’s ability to provide protection. Communities such as the Winter Park Highlands completed an extensive amount of work in becoming more FireWise, yet persistent issues such as roads, the topography of the area and remaining fuels, still make such neighborhoods a challenge for fire responders in a catastrophic event.
Hazard levels did not change for a number of highlighted areas in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan due to the plan’s interpretation of a number of wildfire risk factors. Aspects such as road access, the steepness of roads, and available water supply to fight fires are taken into consideration with the plan, as are the fuels that can feed wildfire.
The mitigation work that has taken place has changed the fuel model the fire department is up against if a wildfire were to take place by replacing dead or dying timber with open grass areas, though in many cases has not decreased the risk certain subdivisions, areas, and towns face.
Many homeowners and HOAs have completed tree clearing to remove trees killed as part of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which has greatly reduced the risk of wildfire to many of the communities identified in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, according to the plan. Before any fuel mitigation was completed, the forested areas around these communities were continuous stands of Lodgepole Pines in various stages of the mountain pine beetle attack. “With the removal of these trees, additional water and light has been able to reach the forest floor,” the plan says. “This has given grasses and forbs an opportunity to flourish and take over. If they dry out, a fire in the light flashy fuels will be easier to contain, but would have a faster rate of spread.”
The change from heavy timber to open grassland doesn’t necessarily decrease the risk of a wildfire, but rather changes the techniques firefighters employ to battle the fire. “The fire fighting tactics have to be different,” said Todd Holzwarth, fire chief for East Grand Fire District No. 4. “It’s quite a ballet to fight these fires correctly.”
While grassland fires don’t burn as hot as fires in heavy timber, they spread much quicker and are controlled more by the wind, Holzwarth said.
Fighting grassland fires requires firefighters to get ahead of the fire in order to pre-burn the area to control where the fire can spread. This task is much easier than creating a fire break in a heavily timbered area, though grassland fires are harder to predict where they will move to as they move very quickly and are pushed by wind, which is oftentimes unpredictable.
“It’s not going to get any easier,” Holzwarth said. “Just different.”
The heightened threat to the area’s forest won’t normalize for another 40 to 50 years, or so, until trees start to make a comeback in the area, Holzwarth said.
You can view the updated Community Wildfire Protection Plan at East Grand Fire’s website at eastgrandfire.com.
Reid Tulley can be reached at 970-887-3334