Colville Business Council Chair Rodney Cawston speaks at the launch of Wildfire Ready Neighbors with Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, April 19.

WINTHROP - Speaking on traditional land of the Methow people, Colville Business Council member Rodney Cawston joined Washington State’s Commissioner of the Public Lands Hilary Franz to launch ‘Wildfire Ready Neighbors,” April 19, a pilot program that aims to connect Washington residents with experts and tools to take steps toward proactively protecting their homes and property against the threat of wildfire.

“I don’t need to say why this matters,” said Franz, speaking to a group in the Sun Mountain Ranch Club, a small community near Winthrop, during the kickoff event. “This community, maybe more so than most in Washington state, knows why this is absolutely critical.”

Over the 2020 Labor Day Weekend, over 300,000 acres burned in a single day across Washington. That total included the Cold Springs Fire and Inchelium Complex of Fires on the Colville Reservation that burned nearly 200,000 acres and 80 homes alone.

In 2014, the Carlton Complex burned over 250,000 acres and over 350 homes in Okanogan County. Then again in 2015, the Okanogan Complex and North Star Fire burned over 350,000 acres and 120 homes in Okanogan and Ferry counties.

“We know Colville Nation, with the Cold Springs Fire, had a huge loss, huge devastation,” continued Franz. “We know that we lost a civilian, a small boy, a one year old, as his family tried to outrun that fire. We know this community also lost many other lives, like Christopher Johnson in Okanogan in 2019. Then the Twisp Fire, where we lost three firefighters. This community knows how significant this issue is and knows the risk to every single member of the community and to our firefighters who are putting their lives on the line.”

The new state program, Wildfire Ready Neighbors, is piloting in Chelan, Okanogan and Spokane counties this year. Chelan County launched April 5 and Spokane County launched April 30.

As of April 21, across all three counties over 650 people had signed up for the program and received a Wildfire Ready Plan. Of that number, 250 people have been from Okanogan County, according to DNR staff.

“For communities like Winthrop that are on the frontlines of wildfire, the unfortunate reality is that community preparedness is the last line of defense,” said Franz. “We know that homes that prepare are safer and less susceptible to fire.

“Wildfire Ready Neighbors makes it easy for residents to learn about and remedy risk factors on their property. At no cost, residents can have a preparedness expert visit their home and develop an action plan. With fires already starting to burn, the time is now to take action and protect your communities.” 

The Colville Tribes and Mount Tolman Fire Center’s Prevention Office have partnered with the DNR to continue the program on the Okanogan County portion of the Colville Indian Reservation.

“I really appreciate the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and our Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz for all the work they’re doing to improve forest health, to try to do the planning, to work with our communities and our neighbors, developing this program here to prepare all of our people and our communities as much as we can,” said Cawston. 

“I can’t encourage everybody enough to participate in this program, to sign up, to learn what you can do to prepare your homes and your families in the event of another catastrophic event like last year. For your families, your neighbors, encourage them to sign up for this as well. We are all in this together. It doesn’t matter our ethnicity, our income levels or where we come from. When the fire hits, it hits everybody.”

If passed into law House Bill 1168, which received support from the Colville Tribes during hearings in February, would further provide $13 million toward community resiliency in the next biennium if passed, Franz said.

“We only had the resources to start in three counties, as a pilot,” said Franz. “Now 1168, if it passes, we have $13 million in that budget for community resilience. The goal is to move it to other counties: Klickitat, Kittitas, Ferry, Pend Oreille, Stevens … We are going to start with the highest risks and just keep on going.”

Okanogan County residents can go to www.wildfireready.com to be prompted to sign up for a fire assessment for their property and to get more information on the program. For Colville Reservation residents, sign up information will go through the same platform and will be provided to the Mount Tolman Fire Center Prevention Office.

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