‘I felt helpless’: Yakima homeowners take advantage of Wildfire Ready Neighbors program

YAKIMA, Wash. — Yakima County homeowners can now get a firefighter to visit their property and help them figure out what they need to do protect their homes for the upcoming wildfire season at no cost to themselves.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources launched the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program last summer in high-risk communities across three counties and had more than 2,000 residents sign up.

Residents can receive a free consultation with a wildfire expert who will visit their property to determine what steps they can take to prepare for wildfires, such as trimming back brush, cleaning roofs and gutters, and removing debris.

“What we’ve done is helping homeowners, renters, small forest landowners, have the resources and the understanding of what they need to do to make their homes and their neighborhoods more resilient,” Washington State Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said.

Franz said they expanded the program this year to include Yakima County, which experienced the devastating Schneider Springs Fire last fall and saw a total of 107,000 acres burn during the 2021 wildfire season.

“That’s why program is so critical because this is a county that year after year is facing increasing fires, increasing threats to the community,” Franz said. “We do not and should not wait until fire is at the doorstep of our homes.”

State and local officials met with people living in Falcon Ridge on Thursday to help raise awareness about Wildfire Ready Neighbors and to thank local couple Bob and Sherry Rheaume for getting their community involved.
Prior to moving to the rural West Valley area several years ago, the couple hadn’t thought much about wildfires in relation to their own safety. One night, they saw a fire coming up over a nearby ridge.
“The awareness hit me. I felt helpless,” Sherry said. “What do I do?”
When they went to get wildfire insurance, Bob and Sherry were shocked to learn the insurance provider would not be covering them because they lived in an area that’s at high risk for wildfires.
West Valley Fire Chief Nathan Craig said that’s because the area is only accessible by one road, is located miles away from the nearest fire station and is covered in sagebrush, which can be highly flammable.
“It’s one home on the edge of the sagebrush that catches fire that wipes out entire neighborhoods,” Craig said.”
While Bob and Sherry were eventually able to find someone who would give them wildfire insurance, they decided to do whatever they could to make sure they wouldn’t need to use it.
“I thought our property was fairly well protected until the Wildfire Ready program came along and we had an assessment made of our property,” Bob said. “And while they weren’t forceful, they had many recommendations for us.”
Bob Rheaume Sagebrush Yakima Falcon Ridge

Credit: Emily Goodell, KAPP-KVEW

One recommendation was to clear sagebrush from the area surrounding their home.

Bob said it took him about 16 hours over two days to clear a section of their property where the sage was particularly dry.
They’ve also encouraged other area homeowners to do the same and enlisted neighbors to help any older or less mobile people in the community who might have trouble clearing their own properties.
Bob and Sherry received a grant through DNR to put toward getting their community ready for wildfire season and decided to use it to get someone to chip away at the sagebrush they’ve cleared from their properties and remove it altogether.

Craig said having the whole community on board is important because it creates a larger area that’s less susceptible to wildfires.

“The fire is going to come eventually to your neighborhood and the more prepared your home is the better chance we have of saving it,” Craig said.

Yakima County residents can sign up for the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program here. Anyone who thinks they might need financial assistance to make their property ready for wildfires can potentially apply for funding through DNR’s cost share program.

RECENT HEADLINES FROM THE KAPP-KVEW NEWS STAFF:

READ: Yakima high schooler wins congressional art competition with MMIW painting