Officials hear pleas for improved firefighting
By Marcy Stamper
They had a new audience, but it was a familiar refrain as Okanogan County residents still reeling from the wildfires of the past two summer argued for better forest management — in particular, through logging and grazing, but also thinning and prescribed burning — to reduce fire risk.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse brought his congressional colleague from Pennsylvania, Glenn “GT” Thompson, to Okanogan County on Thursday (March 31) to see and hear — firsthand — the impacts of the state’s two largest wildfires in 2014 and 2015. Thompson chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.
Frustration and anger were still evident as people described traumatic experiences during the Carlton and Okanogan complex fires. Several speakers charged that firefighters had waited too long to respond, had watched as fires burned homes and fields, and had prevented them from fighting the fires.
Many speakers said the solution is to have more control so local firefighters can put out fires while they are still small. Fire managers should send in large aircraft and smokejumpers as soon as a fire is detected, they said.
“We’ve got to go out and fight fire, and quit managing the stuff,” said one attendee.
Several speakers suggested that firefighters and incident commanders with highly trained national teams don’t care because they don’t have a connection to this area. One suggested that some fire managers are not aggressive in initial attack because having larger fires will “fatten their pockets” by creating more work.
Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell emphasized the need to beef up response with more local resources and training “so we can put the fire out without waiting for the big guns.”
County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy listed three basic demands: to “untie the hands” of local fire districts for initial attack, to fight fire 24 hours a day, and to require state and federal agencies to manage their lands effectively.
Panelist Mike Williams, supervisor of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, agreed that the solution is forest restoration. “We need to increase the pace and scale of restoration — more thinning, more acres, more prescribed burns — so that fire won’t be as severe,” he said.
County Commissioner Jim DeTro said smokejumpers should be sent out on a fire as soon as it is detected instead of having “to wait for a piece of paper.”
Williams reminded people that the North Cascades Smokejumper Base, while very important, is managed as a national resource.
More than one speaker said communications for residents and first responders must be upgraded. “Firefighters had better communications [between engines] 20 to 30 years ago,” said veteran firefighter Carlene Anders.
Newhouse, Thompson and Williams were joined by Thomas J. Dargan, federal coordinating officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the state’s Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark.
After 40 minutes of opening remarks by the panelists, a frustrated audience member said, “Are we going to get to Q&A, or just listen to speeches?” In the end, the meeting was extended by an hour to give everyone a chance to speak. About 100 people attended the meeting in Okanogan.
As at previous post mortems on the past two forest seasons, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), headed by Goldmark, drew considerable criticism for what many called lax firefighting. Although some had hoped to question Goldmark, the commissioner left after opening remarks to catch a plane, prompting cries of irritation from some audience members.
Goldmark said he requested $24 million from the Legislature for firefighting resources for DNR and for local fire districts, but lawmakers appropriated only a fraction of that — less than $7 million.
While firefighters extinguish 98 percent of fires in the national forest, the acreage that burns annually continues to grow, said Williams. Fires in the past two years alone consumed a quarter of the 8.8 million acres that have burned across the country in the past decade, he said.
The Forest Service already spends more than half its budget on firefighting and Williams said the agency expects that to reach two-thirds, further diminishing the budget for maintenance and facilities.
Several speakers attributed recent wildfires to policies intended to protect the environment and endangered species.
“It’s basic common sense. The Endangered Species Act is the mother monster of all the problems in Okanogan County. We have to figure out a way to abolish or rewrite it, so environmental terrorists don’t have that weapon,” said one speaker.
Rep. Thompson also blamed forest management. “National forests are not national parks. Trees are a crop,” he said, criticizing “decades of misguided environmental activism in the name of saving the forests.”
Several speakers complained that environmental groups have halted salvage sales of burned timber using lawsuits that create such a delay that the timber loses all value. In the past year, several lawsuits filed in Okanogan County have claimed that logging in steep burned areas could cause erosion and mudslides.
Ranchers whose grazing allotments burned said they need to know right away where they can graze their cattle. Williams said the Forest Service realizes how much fencing was destroyed and will not issue citations to affected ranchers. “If cows get out, they get out. We have to figure out a way to get them back,” he said.
FEMA was the one agency to get kudos. Jon Wyss, chair of the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group, said FEMA has maintained a local presence since the Carlton Complex Fire.