Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Working to prevent roadside brush fires

by Barbara LaBoe

With drought conditions across Washington, the risk of devastating wildfires like those in Wenatchee will continue throughout the summer. In addition to the risk to life and property, when fires like the one in Marysville on Tuesday break out along roadsides, they can snarl traffic as crews work to respond and keep the flames from spreading.

Crews extinguish a fire on eastbound I-90 at milepost 86.
Photo Credit: Washington State Patrol
Summer is the busy season for transportation maintenance work, but we're taking steps to reduce and prevent fire risks.

The first is timing. Every year, we do most of our mowing in early spring or late fall to avoid the hot, dry summer season. We also leave bare ground barriers alongside roadways in many cases to provide extra protection against sparks and other fire risks. This year is no different.

That said, some of our maintenance work can't wait, often because to do so would comprise motorist safety. And work like mowing, grinding or welding carry some inherent risks of sparks that could lead to a fire.

That's why whenever we complete maintenance work during the dry season we take several precautions. We obtain Industrial Fire Precaution Level waivers from the Department of Natural Resources and abide by their guidelines. That includes having water and tools on site to immediately extinguish any sparks or fires that start due to our work.

We also limit our maintenance work, according to waiver guidelines, during the hottest part of the day. Work is done from 8 p.m. to 1 p.m., when it's more humid and less likely for a fire to start. If weather conditions are particularly severe, everything except emergency work is halted.

In the past two years we've also invested $250,000 in additional fire prevention tools such as water tanks, shovels and backpack sprayers. We've also conducted extra fire prevention/safety training at a cost of about $50,000.

On our construction projects, the responsibility to follow fire safety rules falls on the contractors doing the work. Our engineers remind companies of those responsibilities, including working with DNR and others to ensure all work is done safely.

Northbound I-5 in Marysville.
We also need the public's help in preventing roadside fires.

The top causes of brush fires along roads are: drivers throwing lit items (cigarettes, fireworks) out of cars; a blown tire or other malfunction that produces sparks and driving a vehicle onto dry grass or vegetation. The heat from a car's engine can start a fire in dry grass.

Please be safe and smart on the roads this summer. Dry conditions are expected to continue, so we all need to work together to keep the state fire-free.