REPORT: Most Benton, Yakima County homes are at risk of wildfires over next 30 years

A new report shows 91% of properties in Yakima County and 95% in Benton County have at least some risk of being caught in a wildfire over the next 30 years.

Nonprofit organization First Street Foundation mapped wildfire risk around the country and determine the risk level for properties in each zip code, concluding that people should expect a sharp increase in the number of properties at risk over the next 30 years.

Researchers in the report found that 480,800 properties in Washington state have at least 0.03% likelihood of being in a wildfire this year. That number is expected to increase to 560,000 properties in the next 30 years.

“We see it every year, these destructive wildfires and you don’t have to live in an area with timber and trees,” West Valley Fire Chief Nathan Craig said. “We are prone to burn being in a sagebrush and cheatgrass environment.”

While the numbers vary by county, Eastern Washington counties are on the top of the list for the greatest number of properties facing some risk of wildfires this year:

  • Yakima County ranked second for the greatest number of properties at risk this year, with 61,900 properties with at least a .03% annual risk of being affected by wildfire, representing 61.2% of all properties in the county.
    • Those numbers are expected to increase to 92,195 properties at risk over the next 30 years, representing 91% of all properties in the county.
  • Benton County ranked third for the greatest number of properties at risk this year, with 51,200 properties with at least a .03% annual risk of being affected by wildfire, representing 70.5% of all properties in the county.
    • Those numbers are expected to increase to 69,158 properties at risk over the next 30 years, representing  95% of all properties in the county.
  • Kittitas County ranked eighth for the greatest number of properties at risk this year, with 23,800 properties with at least a .03% annual risk of being affected by wildfire, representing 45.7% of all properties in the county.
    • Those numbers are expected to increase to 36,148 properties at risk over the next 30 years, representing  99% of all properties in the county.
  • Franklin County ranked tenth for the greatest number of properties at risk this year, with 14,600 properties with at least a .03% annual risk of being affected by wildfire, representing 45.7% of all properties in the county.
    • Those numbers are expected to increase to 28,507 properties at risk over the next 30 years, representing  89% of all properties in the county.

Yakima woman living in wildfire-prone area working to prep for summer fires

Denise LaFrenier moved into a home in Falcon Ridge in the West Valley area in Yakima County about a month ago and was shocked to be denied homeowners’ insurance because she was living in a fire zone.

“I didn’t take that into consideration when I was looking; I didn’t and I should have,” LaFrenier said. “It was a wake up call.”

LaFrenier had to shop for other insurance that required her to pay a higher premium due to the wildfire risk in her area, which is in a rural location away from fire stations and surrounded by fields of dry sagebrush.

Falcon Ridge also has only one single-lane road, which could cause issues in an emergency where residents were trying to evacuate at the same time fire trucks were trying to get closer to the fire.

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

Eventually, LaFrenier was able to find another insurance provider who agreed to help, but she said her premiums are much higher and she’s worried about what might happen to her and her neighbors if they did get caught in a wildfire.

“It can hit anywhere where they’re suffering from a real dry season,” LaFrenier said. “And so yeah, I think to say it’s not going to happen to you is not being very responsible.”

That’s why LaFrenier said she decided to take matters into her own hands and consider what changes could be made to make her home safer in case of a wildfire.

Wildfire Ready Neighbors program offers free help to property owners

Along with other members of the Falcon Ridge community, LaFrenier signed up for the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program through the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, which gives people the tools they need to prepare their homes for wildfire season.

Craig said preparations like removing debris from around the home and keeping the grass as green as possible can make a huge difference. He said all it takes is for one stray ember to catch one house on fire for a whole block or neighborhood to be at risk of losing everything.

“If you’ve got pine needles and flammable materials around your home, an ember from a fire a quarter mile away could potentially get your house on fire,” Craig said.

Anyone can utilize the Wildfire Ready website to get tips on how to make your home as safe as possible from wildfires or, if residents put in demographic information about their property, receive a free personalized wildfire preparation plan.

“It’s an extremely important initiative,” said Allen Lebovitz, the Washington State Wildland Fire and Forest Resiliency Liaison at DNR. “It’s designed to be a very accessible and easy and free way of learning how to become better prepared in case of a wildfire.”

Residents living in Chelan, Spokane and Yakima counties can also sign up to get a free in-person visit from a fire official who will be able to point out ways to make their property safer for wildfire season.

Although it’s an ongoing program, state fire officials are pushing to hit their sign up goals by June 19, before fire season hits:

  • Yakima County has had 127 people sign up so far in 2022, getting them more than a third of the way toward their goal of 340.
  • Spokane County has had 499 people sign up so far in 2022, making them just one person short of their goal of 500.
  • Chelan County has had 260 people sign up so far in 2022, getting them more than halfway to their goal of 440.

State fire officials said they plan to launch the program this fall in Kittitas, Klickitat and Okanogan counties as well.

Lebovitz said they’ve been “incredibly inspired” by the responses they’ve received from fire districts, community groups and the people who are signing up.

“It is actually very gratifying to see communities coming together to get better prepared, to help each other, protect each other and help protect firefighters that are coming in to to fight these fires,” Lebovitz said. “Thank you to everybody that’s been participating.”

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