Wildfire Season: A Guide to Evacuation Levels and Important Terminology

Pete Caster

Wildland firefighters spray water onto a tree that caught fire as they were building a fire line for the Lick Creek Fire, Monday, July 12, 2021, south of Asotin, Wash.

SOUTHEAST WASHINGTON — Wildfires are becoming increasingly inevitable across the Western United States and Washington state is no exception. As of today, there are at least nine wildfires being monitored across Washington at varying levels of severity and containment.

When a wildfire begins, the authorities begin using terminology that may not be commonplace for the state’s residents. The purpose of this article is to break down some of the terms that get thrown around during wildfire season to help you educate yourself in case you find yourself in dire circumstances.

Before getting accustomed to the wildfires themselves, let’s take a look at the three Evacuation Levels.

Evacuation Levels

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Washington’s three fire evacuation levels are reminiscent of a race: Level One means to get ready, Level Two means to get set, and Level Three means it’s time to go.

  • At Level One, fire danger is present in your area. That means you should monitor the news for updates and prepare yourself to evacuate if need be. At this point, you need to consider gathering emergency supplies and personal belongings so you can leave quickly if the situation escalates.
  • At Level Two, there is significant fire danger in your area. At this point, you should consider voluntarily gathering your essential belongings and relocate away from the area. However, Evacuation Level 2 is not a mandate and you may remain where you are so long as you’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
  • At Level Three, fire danger poses an immediate threat to you and your home. You must evacuate and relocate outside of the impacted region as quickly as possible.

Here’s a useful tip: Plan your evacuation route and/or pack your emergency go back as quickly as possible! For details on what you should keep in your emergency “Go Bag,” click the related link below.

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Once the fire is ongoing, you’ll start to hear terminology that you may not be familiar with. As first responders and emergency fire crews rush to the region, making sure that people are out of harm’s way is the most important component. However, these firefighting efforts oftentimes last days and in extreme cases, weeks.

Here are some phrases you’ll hear during the firefighting efforts:

  • CONTAINMENT: A fire is “contained” when crews have built containment lines around the entire perimeter of a fire, ensuring that it won’t spread beyond that plot of land. For example, a fire is considered 10% contained when containment lines have been set around 10% of the perimeter of a fire.
    • Once a fire is 100% contained, then it is considered CONTROLLED, even if there are still hotspots/smoke coming from inside the containment lines.
    • When there are no hotspots and no smoke coming from a controlled fire for 48 hours, it will be officially deemed OUT.
  •  INTENSITY: The amount of heat given off by a wildfire at a certain point in time. Intensity can range at certain locations of a fire.
    • Factors that influence a fire’s intensity include weather conditions, fire size, plant chemistry, topography, etc.
  • FUEL: The materials that feed a fire.
    • Anything that burns can be considered fuel for a fire. In many wildfires, the common fuel source is vegetation (grass, shrubs, trees, roots, etc.)
  •  MOP-UP: The process of extinguishing and/or removing burning material to reduce smoke and the risk of fire spreading beyond containment lines.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a detailed list of contacts, information, and sources that may be of interest to you in a wildfire emergency. You can visit that list by clicking here. The United States Forest Service details terminology on their website here.


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