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Fire threat still high

NORTH BEND - The cautionary message about the potential for wildfires this summer from local, county and state officials was almost drowned out last week by the pouring rain.

At a news conference Wednesday in the Forster Woods subdivision of North Bend, Mayor Joan Simpson, King County Executive Ron Sims and others tried to avoid the raindrops while urging residents to remain vigilant during the coming wildfire season. They said despite a relatively wet month of June, the danger persists.

Simpson said in a city that receives more than 60 inches of rain a year, it may sound odd to warn of wildfires. However, that moisture can evaporate quickly in the summer sun.

"In the summer, when it dries up, we are very susceptible to fire," she said.

North Bend is not alone. As the population in King County continues to swell, more people are living closer to forested areas. It makes for a nice view, but at the same time it increases the chances for neighborhood houses to catch fire from the surrounding trees.

Last year, as forests across the western half of the United States were ablaze, Western Washington managed to escape nature's wrath. Sims said that might not be the case this summer, as the entire state has been subject to below-normal rainfall.

"This is the second-most driest year that we've had since we've been keeping records," he said.

Add to that high winds from the east, which are typical in the foothills of the Cascades, forests "fuels," plants and trees that feed fires, causing them to grow, and you have a recipe for disaster.

"We have been fortunate here in Western Washington that we have not had the kinds of catastrophic fires occurring throughout the West,"said Deputy Chief John Murphy of Eastside Fire & Rescue, which provides firefighting services to a 215-square-mile area, including North Bend, Preston and Carnation. "But our time is coming."

There are steps homeowners can take to prevent a wildfire from destroying their houses, said Chuck Frame, fire operations manager for the state Department of Natural Resources - Central Puget Sound Region. He said a "defensible space" - a buffer of about 30 feet between a house and any neighboring trees - is needed. He also said homeowners should cut back any vegetation that can serve as "ladder fuels," which help transport fire upward to tree branches.

Frame said unlike last year, when Western Washington firefighters traveled across the mountains to quell blazes, this summer they may be forced to work closer to home.

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