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Study hopes to hone Kitsap firefighting strategy

It can be dangerously difficult to fight fires in forested lands that encroach on communities, especially in Kitsap where the land is hilly and riddled with streams, breaking off access to firefighters and trucks.

While the risk of a blaze in the forests of Kitsap County is not as great as in vastly drier states like Colorado, New Mexico and California, the land here still presents unique firefighting challenges.

“Kitsap County is at a moderate risk of wildfires or brush fires, but if we do have them, it’s very difficult to put them out,” said Deputy Fire Marshal Jeannie Vaughn. “The topography of the county is hilly and there are streams everywhere making access an issue.”

The Kitsap County Fire Marshal’s Office wants to do something about it, rather than wait for an emergency to occur first.

For the next six months, county fire marshals plan to implement a Firewise Communities Plan study in one of the more heavily forested regions, also surrounded by homes and communities, in Kitsap County.

“The first phase of the study will be in the Chico Basin,” said Vaughn who, earlier this month, announced the fire Marshal’s Office secured a $50,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to launch the study.

Kitsap County plans to contribute an in-kind contribution of $24,000 in the form of personnel time and county resources.

The Chico Basin, in this case is defined as the areas roughly between the Mason County line and the northern tip of Dyes Inlet, and between Lake Symington in the west and Kitsap Lake in the east.

The study will collect as much vital information on the Chico Basin as possible. Key facts such as marking all of the public water access points, listing all of the area fire stations, drawing out a network of roads and access points and whether fire engines and trucks can travel down them.

GIS technology and aerial mapping techniques will be used for data gathering purposes and, in turn will be used to help determine the risk of fires in more rural communities.

“Once all the data is collected, we will send a field officer out to double-check our information for accuracy,” Vaughn said.

And, once collected and analyzed, a homeowner education campaign can be launched.

“We can talk about defensible space and making sure mailboxes are clearly marked, for example,” Vaugn said. “Defensible space can mean thinning out vegetation around trees and limbing the trees.”

Those simple landscaping techniques can promote fire abatement while while still maintaining the beauty around the home. Vaughn said the goal is to also square these educational programs with environmental concerns. Groups promoting natural habitat say natural vegetation is a must, especially along stream beds.

“We don’t want to have mixed messages,” Vaughn said. “We want reasonable education while preserving environmental systems.”

The Firewise Communities Plan is a groundswell effort of sorts that has emerged nationwide and involves the nation homebuilder association, the federal department of emergency management, the Nature Conservancy, the American Red Cross, the national association of counties and even corporate interest and others.

Depending on the success of Phase I of the Firewise planning effort in Kitsap, the county could pursue additional grant funds to study the rest of the county.

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