Highway fires are one of the many threats firefighters must battle throughout the summer. With road trips to the river and evening barbecues at the park on the horizon, fire and road management agencies are exploring a range of options to reduce fire risk in the landscape, particularly in areas where humans traffic on a daily basis.

According to Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue Deputy Chief Rich Elliott, highway fires are unavoidable, but KVFR, Department of Natural Resources and Washington Department of Transportation are all working together to reduce the amount wildfires.

Elliott said managing the brush along I-90 and making sure it is properly cleared of fire fuels is paramount to reducing summer fires. A high number of acreage fires had origins from the highway. A flicked cigarette, cars overheating or a spark is all it takes to turn dried grasses from spring to fire.

Although clearing weeds and brush away from the highway is important in fire protection a trend KVFR noticed unique to rural farming communities like Ellensburg and Kittitas is hay.

“Hay growers are driving their grass from Kittitas County to be processed for shipping in Ellensburg,” Elliott said. “We began to see a direct correlation between the number of fires that were starting along the side of I-90 and I-82 as vegetation crept up to the roadside.”

According to Elliott, when KVFR went to sites to investigate what practices might be successful they noticed 2 to 4 inches of hay gathered in areas along I-90. Elliott said there wasn’t anything that was changing because of the road, but instead, there were more catchable fuel beds.

“What is happening is the hay comes in not as tightly packed as it is when it goes into containers to be shipped out,” Elliott said. “So parts of that blow off and so that dry cheatgrass catches all that light debris and we were seeing two-three-four inches of really, really light fuel.”

Other measures that could help efforts depending on available funds are replacing wood posts holding up the guardrails to metal in fire-prone areas. The wood post can burn for hours if not days according to KVFR.

The fires along the freeway don’t tend to run into things that are a high value like homes or businesses, but stopping a highway can be costly in means of loss revenue for trucks or the hault of other merchandise. 

“The road itself tends to have a high value and keeping the road open and keeping it free is important,” Elliott said.

The fires along 1-90 ultimately drove KVFR, KCSO, and DNR to send a letter in 2017 to the DOT addressing the issue.

“Locally we’ve had very good reception with DOT… they can’t fix it in a year,” Elliott said.

According to Meagan Lott with DOT, they are working with Kittitas County fire departments to help clear vegetation along I-90 between Kittitas at milepost 115 to Vantage at milepost 137. DOT said more and more fires are happening every year especially between Vantage and the Ryegrass rest area from vehicles overheating.

Lott said they are clearing vegetation down to the dirt, which extends both sides of the roadway about two to four feet from the end of the pavement. DOT is also clearing vegetation from under the guardrail and are using a herbicide to keep vegetation from growing back.

“We started working with the fire department last spring and will continue to keep this section of I-90 clear of vegetation,” Lott said.

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