Too Close To Home
Bob and Mary Dunn spent seven years looking for the perfect spot to build their dream house.
The Dunn's home in Spokane narrowly survived a wildfire just after it was built.

They built on a bluff overlooking the Spokane River. "It's 15 minutes to my office, but we have the park below us, so nobody will build down there," Bob says, perched on the golden mean between the convenience of town and the seclusion of pines.

Building on that border, the Dunns knew they should be prepared for wildfire. They chose concrete tiles for the roof and a special fire-retardant stucco for the walls. They even selected a lot with the fewest pine trees growing on it. Sprinkler heads connected to the lawn irrigation system would surround the perimeter of their yard in a moat of mist if fire ever threatened.

It threatened a lot sooner than they expected. On August 14, 1997, just four months after Bob and Mary moved in and before the sprinkler was installed, someone using a welding torch a mile away cut a red-hot bolt off a boat. It ignited some dry, tall grass, and in minutes a barn and two old motor homes parked nearby burned. Winds blowing from eastern Washington's rolling Palouse country at 25 to 30 mph whipped through dead trees downed by an ice storm the previous winter, and flames encircled the Dunns' house scarcely an hour later. Smoke reduced the sun to a tiny red pinprick.

Shield of Dreams

Ten days later, the 772 acre Newkirk Fire was declared dead out with the help of nearly 500 firefighters at a cost of $415,000. Bob and Mary's home survived unscathed thanks to what firefighter Eric Martensen calls an "excellent defensible space" -- a wide area clear of fuels around the house. As the head of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Fire Control Unit for the Spokane area, Eric managed the initial attack for this fire and is responsible for trying to protect over 400,000 acres of wooded land in which people live.

"We either have fires coming out of people's back yards or fire threatening people's houses," Eric says.

"This requires more aggressive attack and puts firefighters in danger, because you can't drop back to natural boundaries" such as open fields.

Firefighters look on as flames approach the Dunn's property.

Living Rooms vs. Living Trees

This is what makes fighting fire here in the "wildland-urban interface" so difficult. People move to the country to get away from it all, but don't always understand that they're in a habitat where fire is a frequent and natural visitor. Not only do they demand fire protection for their homes, they don't want to see any trees burn.

"Some people were very critical of the firefighters on the scene because they weren't fighting to save trees," Bob recalls. But with the winds blowing so hard, the trees were doomed, and he was glad the engine crew stationed at the house saved their water. "Having this fire race around us on three sides, I didn't want an empty truck if the house caught on fire."

Learning from Experience

Homeowner awareness of wildland fire risk has increased in the Spokane area considerably since 109 homes and 50,000 acres were lost in what's still remembered as "Firestorm '91." The Dunns' house is state of the art, even though Washington has no formal codes. (Colorado is the only state with zoning regulations based on historical fire patterns.)

These days, Eric says, putting on a wooden shake roof is basically "a sign of a lack of intelligence."