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Preparedness is Key as Wildland Fire Hits Closer to Home

I have sipped the labor of those who grow grapes.  I have driven the winding roads, marveled at the lush hillsides, and pondered the fuel load in the beautiful wine country of California.
Many of you have shared these experiences and collectively, our hearts are enormously heavy. We understand the losses that are occurring, we know the frustration of the firefighters trying to make a difference, and the overwhelming feeling of being overrun by a wind-driven fire.

Since 1998, we here in Teton County, Wyoming, have been taking bites out of the wildland urban interface elephant. Tucked in the northwest corner of the state, the area is home of Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park, and our close neighbor to the north, Yellowstone National Park. We began to see the light in 1988 when Yellowstone National Park burned. Less than 100 miles south, it was writing on the wall. Leaders before my time mapped the first wildland urban interface map in Teton County.

Knowing the challenge was not just about defensible space, those leaders then adopted codes that would examine wildland fire risk factors and provide hazard ratings to all new construction within these mapped areas. With the goal of building fire resilient homes, we forged forward.
Last summer, two wildland fires hit close to home. One was ignited from a lightning strike, the other from Mylar balloons tangled up in a power line. The fires spread quickly. Our Emergency Service Office deployed the Ready, Set, Go! Program on the first instance and then again, a mere month later, for the second fire.

This second fire, the Saddle Butte Fire, provided an in-town roadside display of 8-foot flame lengths, wind, and topography driven fire behavior. At the top of Saddle Butte, a newer home was impacted with considerable radiant heat and some direct flame impingement. The home survived. Teton County maintains the record of having never watched a single structure burn down in a wildland fire.

This fact, however, brings the preponderance of apathy within a high-end community presuming the air attack and insurance fire trucks will come quickly to save the values at risk which dominate in this unique and beautiful landscape. Thanks to the vision of the leaders before us, the adopted International Code Council Wildland-Urban Interface Code has designed fire resilient homes and now, we have a story to tell.

Every community has its unique topography and unique fuel types. I am not certain that a Firewise community or a wildland-urban interface code will ever be enough in the face of California’s incredible Santa Ana winds and a landscape crowded with dried fuels. No one wants to live in a concrete bunker.

The solutions for California are unknown. We are looking to the west to learn in hopes that as our fire seasons become more and more like California’s, we can plan and be ready. The climatologists are not predicting a wetter future. And the elephant is really, really big.

Chief Kathy Clay worked her way up through Jackson Hole Fire/EMS starting as a volunteer firefighter in 2002. Holding an IAFC and Missouri Valley Division membership, Chief Clay also sits on the Wyoming Governor’s Council on Fire Prevention, represents the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) on the Vision 20/20 Steering Committee, and is a former IAWF board member. Chief Clay is the Fire Investigator for Teton County and is a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators.

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