For of­fi­cials, Kennewick fire of­fers learn­ing op­por­tu­nity

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY CAMERON PROBERT cprobert@tric­i­ty­her­ald.com

The process of re­build­ing is just start­ing for the fam­i­lies struck by the worst fire to hit the area in 25 years.

Steve and Candie Smith lost their 47th Av­enue home in south Kennewick in a mat­ter of min­utes Aug. 11, but it’s likely go­ing to be more than a year be­fore their house is re­built.

“We’re re­ally happy with how things are hap­pen­ing” said Candie, though she ad­mits it’s been a slow process.

Tri-City fire of­fi­cials are study­ing what went wrong, what went well and how they can do more to pro­tect homes and lives.

They hope to turn what they learned from the 5,000-acre, wind-driven wild­fire that de­stroyed five homes and dam­aged three oth­ers into a safer fu­ture.

The Kennewick Fire Depart­ment just re­leased a sum­mary of its dis­cus­sions with the other agen­cies in­volved with the fire, start­ing with a com­par­i­son to the July 1993 fire that burned 2,000 acres — much of it the same hill­side — and hos­pi­tal­ized two fire­fight­ers and threat­ened 100 homes.

Many is­sues from that blaze sounded sim­i­lar to the Aug. 11 fire. In both cases, emer­gency crews strug­gled to get through roads con­gested with looky-loo spec­ta­tors.

In 1993, then-Fire Chief Bob Kirk de­scribed lines of cars parked along Olympia, Van­cou­ver and Rainier streets as on­look­ers walked to­ward the fire for a closer view.

While both wild­fires burned with a sim­i­lar in­ten­sity, the ‘93 blaze threat­ened homes but didn’t take any down.

Since then, Kennewick has grown by 34,000 peo­ple — with much of that growth on the south end of the city next to wild­land ar­eas and hills.

GET­TING ON THE SAME PAGE

While fire of­fi­cials praised the com­mu­nity, po­lice and fire­fight­ers for work­ing to­gether to bat­tle the blaze, the re­port

WE WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT EV­ERY­ONE IS ON THE SAME PAGE BE­FORE WE HIT PEAK FIRE TIME.

Emer­gency Man­ager Deanna Davis

shows they need to learn to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter with each other.

The sum­mary gave no specifics, but said they dis­cov­ered the need for agen­cies to work on us­ing the same terms and mak­ing sure in­for­ma­tion is clear and go­ing to the right per­son.

Kennewick’s fire of­fi­cials also are work­ing to tighten the bonds be­tween the area de­part­ments, said Fire Chief Vince Beasley. New fire re­cruits are un­der­go­ing a 14-week re­gional train­ing academy with Rich­land, Pasco and Ben­ton County Fire District 1 crews. By train­ing to­gether, they can learn to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter.

“Re­spond­ing per­son­nel must not un­der­es­ti­mate how weather con­di­tions can change a rou­tine fire into an over­whelm­ing, her­culean blaze in a mat­ter of sec­onds,” said the sum­mary.

Ben­ton County Emer­gency Ser­vices is con­tribut­ing to those ef­forts, too.

Emer­gency Man­ager Deanna Davis said the agency plans to bring all of the de­part­ments to­gether be­fore the start of the next fire sea­son to talk about pre­par­ing and re­spond­ing.

“We want to make sure that ev­ery­one is on the same page be­fore we hit peak fire time,” she said.

The sum­mary said that agency needs to have a bet­ter han­dle on what are the high-risk ar­eas and iden­ti­fied haz­ards so it can proac­tively pre­de­fine ar­eas for quicker re­leases of in­for­ma­tion and have bet­ter es­ti­mates on the num­ber of peo­ple af­fected and homes threat­ened.

Part of those plans will in­clude a re­fresher on evac­u­a­tion lev­els.

Ini­tially, a Level 1 or­der was is­sued on Twit­ter and the CodeRED alert sys­tem for neigh­bor­hoods hit by this sum­mer’s fire.

That was meant to make peo­ple aware of an en­croach­ing fire and to watch for fur­ther mes­sages — Level 2 “get set to leave” and Level 3 “get out.”

Soon roads were crowded with looky-loos mak­ing it hard for peo­ple to make their way safely out of Canyon Lakes and In­spi­ra­tion Es­tates, and mak­ing it hard to up­grade to a Level 3 alert.

When the fire turned to­ward Fin­ley, an­other Level 1 evac­u­a­tion mes­sage was sent to res­i­dents on Oak Street and in the Seal Springs area. Fire­fight­ers were able to get ahead of it be­fore it reached homes there.

Along with ar­rang­ing an an­nual strat­egy meet­ing, Ben­ton County Emer­gency Ser­vices is in the mid­dle of draft­ing a com­mu­nity wild­fire pro­tec­tion plan. It’s been 13 years since it last drafted that kind of plan.

It will iden­tify sec­tions of the county at risk for dev­as­tat­ing fires and ways to lower the risk and qual­ify for grants.

A draft is ex­pected to be avail­able in Novem­ber for pub­lic com­ments.

COM­MU­NITY EF­FORTS

With the Aug. 11 fire — now called the Bofer Canyon Fire — came a shift in how city of­fi­cials look at other fire-prone spots, es­pe­cially Zin­tel Canyon.

They put to­gether a team of peo­ple across de­part­ments.

They reached out to home­owner as­so­ci­a­tions in Canyon Lakes and In­spi­ra­tion Es­tates to talk about de­fen­si­ble spa­ces and adopted the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion’s Fire­wise pro­gram.

And when Zin­tel Canyon caught fire again in late Au­gust, they were pre­pared.

They reached out to home­own­ers liv­ing near the 68-acre park be­tween 7th Av­enue and 24th. They stepped up, cut­ting low hang­ing branches and mak­ing fire breaks, re­mov­ing dead wood and find­ing other ways to make fires less dev­as­tat­ing.

“I learned a lot about the im­por­tance of de­fen­si­ble spa­ces,” said Kennewick spokes­woman Eve­lyn Lusig­nan. “We’re see­ing what we can do for out­reach and mit­i­ga­tion.”

The canyon is only the first of the high-risk spots the city plans to fo­cus on.

“Right now we’re fo­cus­ing on the two main ar­eas, but we’re look­ing com­mu­nity-wide,” Lusig­nan said.

For Candie Smith, she didn’t have to look too far for ideas on how to make her new house on 47th safer.

She be­lieves her neigh­bors’ home es­caped de­struc­tion in Au­gust be­cause of their drive­way wraps around the home, cre­at­ing a paved bar­rier that made it just a bit harder for flames to reach the house and giv­ing fire crews a few min­utes longer to get there to de­fend it.

To learn more about pro­tect­ing your home from fire, visit https://bit.ly/2D20Ck2.

TriCi­ties

Tyler Miller stands near the con­crete foun­da­tion of his par­ents’ house in the weeks im­me­di­ately af­ter the fire.

BOB BRAWDY Tri-City Her­ald

The con­crete foun­da­tion for Steve and Candie Smith’s house at 3404 W. 47th Ave, one of five homes con­sumed by flames when a wind-driven fire roared into Kennewick, has re­cently been re­moved in prepa­ra­tion for re­build­ing.

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