It already has been a horrible year for forest fires. Though our relatively moist area has been lucky in this regard for many years, we should be making plans now to ensure that we remain fortunate in terms of minimal loss of life and property.

In Arizona, where 19 firefighters died in a monstrous firestorm, the average temperature has increased about three-quarters of a degree per decade since 1970. All the drought-prone interior Western states are stuck in a situation with tinder-dry fuels in forests where legal snags make it difficult to conduct maintenance logging. They are looking ahead to years of high-risk fire seasons with little real hope for improvement.

In this corner of the Pacific Northwest, drought isn’t on the horizon. In fact, some climate modeling suggests we may get even more precipitation over the course of each year. But this overall pattern isn’t much help in the long period just beginning this year – the summer and early fall months, when it is often drier here than it is in Arizona, which benefits from summer thunderstorms and accompanying drenching rain.

As the Southwest and Mountain West become hotter and drier, it’s inevitable that the moderate wet side of the Pacific Northwest will attract more residents, with housing expanding into forested areas. Oregon State University demographer Roger B. Hammer in 2008 predicted a “wicked problem” of 12.3 million more homes in forested areas of the West, in addition to more than 2.2 million homes built in the 1990s in areas subject to forest fires.

Many in our area cheer the first tentative signs of healing in the home construction industry. It is welcome news for our economy and the jobs market. We need to make sure, though, that fire risk and protection are factored into development decisions. According to a national news report, wildfires destroyed an average of 7 millions acres in the 2000s, double the total in the 1990s, with an upward trend predicted into the future.

Besides making sure that fire protection and homebuilding grow hand-in-hand, rural residents here should cast an eye on their surroundings. Keep trees and bushes away from close contact with homes. Review fire insurance policies and talk with your agent about risk control. Obey seasonal restrictions on outdoor burning and exercise common sense when operating chain saws and other equipment capable of causing sparks in the woods in the remainder of our dry season.

We have to be smart and forward thinking when it comes to managing fire danger in the West. And even here along the moist lower Columbia, we can't take safety for granted.

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