Watershed residents warned of higher risk of wildfires


May 13, 2021 — The city of Bellingham is teaming with the Whatcom Conservation District to help watershed residents prepare for wildfires, with emphasis on those adjacent to city properties that are used by the public. The Lake Whatcom Watershed Fire Risk Reduction Program tracks the times and types of rainfall and temperature changes that are threatening ecosystems, forests and public safety by increasing soil erosion in Lake Whatcom.

“If erosion happens, then all the work the city of Bellingham has done to clean up Lake Whatcom will be undone,” Eric Johnston, city public works director, told the city council at a May 10, 2021 committee meeting.

The city has told the residents who live in the woodlands not to light a fire unless they ask local authorities first. The Whatcom Conservation District has made personalized risk assessments available online for residents to take to help prevent more wildfires. Decreasing summer rain, earlier snowmelt, and increasing air temperature lead to drier fuels and forests. The public works staff plans to work with the district to effectively communicate forest management decisions on city acquisition lands to nearby watershed residents. Two workshops will take place sometime during the spring or fall for residents to learn more about reducing the risk of wildfires.

Lake Padden and Lake Whatcom have been battling invasive species such as New Zealand mud snails for a while now, and with climate change increasing, the invasive species will eventually have to find a new place to dwell, which could cause problems if more wildfires happen by the lakes. Algae blooms on the lake surface could make dissolved oxygen deficits worse if temperatures increase and more nutrients enter Lake Whatcom. Higher temperatures could also mean a higher flood risk in low lying areas that surround Lake Whatcom. City staff continues to track all of these issues, recorded on the city of Bellingham website.

Councilmember Michael Lilliquist said he believes that total fire suppression is dangerous and unnatural.

“As I understand it, the agreement that the City Council approved is for education and public outreach to prevent human-caused fires from development in and around otherwise-undeveloped areas of the Lake Whatcom Watershed,” Lilliquist said, “Total fire suppression makes the fire risk worse, so we have to do some targeted thinning in some managed areas.”

State and local governments have adopted a set of forest management rules and practices specifically for the Lake Whatcom watershed, and this public education program is only a small part of that larger picture. Wildfire behavior, reducing risk to structures, risk and response, forest and tree health, fire-resistant landscaping, smoke impacts, drought impacts, outdoor burning information, balancing risk reduction with watershed friendly practices and climate change adaptation are things that will be included in the education and outreach assistance programs for the residents.