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'PREVENTING WILDFIRE TRAGEDIES' BY BRIAN BOYLE, COMMISSIONER OF PUBLIC LANDS

 'PREVENTING WILDFIRE TRAGEDIES'
 BY BRIAN BOYLE, COMMISSIONER OF PUBLIC LANDS
 OLYMPIA, Wash., Jan. 31 /PRNewswire/ -- The following was released today by the Washington Department of Natural Resources:
 Editor's note: In light of the tragic and terribly destructive fires that raged through Eastern Washington and the hills above Berkeley, Calif. in October 1991, Commissioner of Public Lands Brian Boyle is advocating legislation that would better prepare Washington for future wildfires on the urban fringe. The Rural Homeowners Fire Protection Act of 1992 would mandate safer home construction standards in new housing developments that are at high risk of forest fires. Thank you for your consideration of this opinion piece.
 "There is a difference between disaster and tragedy. A disaster is an act of fate. A drought, a spark and wind can suddenly create a wildfire, resulting in a disaster that could not have been prevented.
 "Tragedy has a human element. It is brought about by our own actions or inactions. That is why tragedy haunts us and causes the kind of remorse that no natural event can ever match.
 "The unprecedented wildfires of 1991 -- in Spokane and Oakland -- were a reminder that, for many of us, the seeds of tragedy can be found at home -- in gutters that need cleaning and in trees that shed dry needles onto flammable cedar shake roofs. The seeds of tragedy lie in the idyllic dreams of several hundred thousand of our citizens who build homes in what amounts to -- during about half the year -- the business-end of a blowtorch.
 "On Oct. 16 of last year that torch resulted in fires that killed one person, destroyed more than a hundred homes and burned 46,000 acres in Spokane, Lincoln, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties. The largest mobilization of firefighters and equipment in the state's history cost $14 million in suppression costs.
 "Most of the fires started after 60-mile-per-hour winds downed powerlines, which short circuited and ignited bone-dry brush and tree branches. Although the results were terrible, we are fortunate that what happened here was not as bad as what happened in Oakland, where 14 lives and more than $1.5 billion in property was lost. Next time we might not be so lucky.
 "After the fires in both places, a few scattered homes -- the ones with composite roofs instead of wooden shakes -- sat like oases is a blackened desert. Just like the Hangman Hills Fire in August 1987, composite-roofed houses were the only ones spared in many subdivisions. Looking at the pile of ashes that was once their home, one young couple told a reporter, 'We had plans to replace our roof, now we wish we had done it sooner...'
 "It is unlikely that the devastating fire storms of October 1991 will change the desires of many people who prefer the picturesque to the safe when they choose their dwellings. They will continue to want to live as close to the woods as possible, on remote winding lanes inaccessible to fire equipment, in areas with hardly enough water pressure in the summer to take a decent shower, under roofs made literally of two tons of cedar kindling.
 "I've been trying for a decade to better prepare our state for wildfires on the urban fringe. This year I am continuing my efforts by advocating legislation that would require new housing developments on the urban fringe to be built with fire safety in mind. The Rural Homeowners Fire Protection Act of 1992 would sensibly reduce the chances of wildfires igniting and rampaging through new housing developments. It is based on recommendations from fire officials across the state, and it needs to be passed by the state legislature.
 "Here is what the legislation would do:
 "First, the Act would direct the Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with other fire agencies, to identify areas particularly at risk from wildfire. In areas of high risk, state building codes would be amended to mandate safeguards on new housing developments.
 "These common sense safeguards would include spark arrestor screens on stove and fireplace outlets; minimum levels of fire protection performance for building materials; and open space between forested areas and homes that would act as a buffer against forest fires. The Act would also require that roads, utility line rights-of- way and water supplies meet basic fire protection needs.
 "We intend to make new cedar roofs much safer. I want to stress that my bill is not a knee-jerk solution that would simply ban cedar shakes. The cedar shake and shingle industry provides jobs for many people in rural Washington and brings income to our state from overseas markets. But we can make all new wooden roofs safer by requiring that shakes be chemically treated to become fire-resistant.
 "Finally, my bill encourages insurance companies to provide incentive for property owners who meet the minimum fire protection standards.
 "It is time we do everything possible to protect property, conserve the state's firefighting dollar and, most important, save lives. I urge you to call the state's toll-free Legislative Hotline (800-562-6000) and let your representative and senator know that it is time to address fire safety in Washington. Tell them you support House Bill 2519 and Senate Bill 6202.
 "By planning ahead, we can lessen the kind of tragedy that struck Eastern Washington last October. We will, if everyone in the fire control community, and in the legislature and in the population at large, can say, 'I did everything I could.' The Rural Homeowners Fire Protection Act of 1992 is an essential component of that statement."
 -0- 1/31/92
 /CONTACT: Mark Abner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources, 206-753-5330/ CO: Washington State Department of Natural Resources ST: Washington IN: SU:


JH-RR -- SE005 -- 5719 01/31/92 15:22 EST
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