Officials urge fire defense preparations

Fire officials, who have been thinning fuel in the Mill Creek Watershed, hope homeowners will take the same steps ahead of fire season.

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Brandon Palmer, left, and Jeff Duke thin out bush and small trees on Indian Ridge Friday on the border of the Mill Creek Watershed. The thinning project removes "ladder fuels" which can allow wildfires to climb into older, taller trees, leading to explosive growth of the fire. (April 9, 2010)

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From left, Brett Thomas, U.S. Forest Service fire management officer talks about the Indian Ridge thinning project with Rocky Eastman, chief of Fire District 4 and Nick Plucker, Walla Walla County Emergency Management. The project is intended to help protect the Mill Creek Watershed, which provides the city of Walla Walla with nearly all of its fresh water. (April 9, 2010)

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High in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, one of the signs along the Indian Ridge hiking trail which marks the boundary of the Mill Creek Watershed Area. The watershed provides the city of Walla Walla with the majority of its fresh water. (April 9, 2010)

INDIAN RIDGE -- Although wildfire season is still months away, fire officials are urging rural homeowners to start thinking about how to defend their homes.

"It doesn't take a lot of work, just little things," such as removing combustible materials like pine needles from the roof and blocking entrances where burning embers can drift in, said Rocky Eastman, chief of Walla Walla Fire District 4. These start "creeping fires" that can be as much or more of a threat than the flame front.

Wildfires were the topic of conversation Friday as Eastman, Nick Plucker with the Walla Walla County Emergency Management Department and others toured a thinning project on Indian Ridge which stands between Tiger Canyon and the Mill Creek Watershed east of Walla Walla.

The U.S. Forest Service is thinning out understory trees and brush along the ridge to reduce fuels that could feed a wildfire sweeping toward the watershed. Crews started work last month have about two more weeks before completion, said Brett Thomas, Forest Service fire management officer.

"It ties in very nicely with what the city of Walla Walla has done in previous years," he said. "The end result is to manipulate the fire to where we can get it back on the ground."

According to a Community Wildfire Protection Plan prepared in 2006, the City of Walla Walla receives 90 percent of its municipal water supply from the Mill Creek watershed. "A severe wildfire in the watershed which would have significant effects on water quality and likely trigger the need for an expensive filtration system," the plan said.

While suppression efforts have kept a major wildfire from striking the watershed for many years, the potential for a fire starting outside the area and moving into it is a major concern. Such a fire could also threaten many homes and cabins in Washington and Oregon along Mill Creek Road and adjacent canyons.

Plucker said the county, along with Fire District 4 and the Forest Service, is seeking a federal grant for a new assessment of fire danger to homes and structures in the Mill Creek area and then pay for thinning vegetation and trees if a property owner wished to have the work done.

But how this year's fire season shapes up will depend on what happens with the rainfall leading into summer, Eastman said.

"The big factor is what happens in June," he said. "The potential for large fires is when you have a dry June."

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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