Photo by Marcy Stamper Representatives from all the agencies that fight fires teamed up to share ideas and skills.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Representatives from all the agencies that fight fires teamed up to share ideas and skills.

Weather forecast looks ‘normal’ this summer

By Marcy Stamper

Armed with experiences and knowledge from the last two record-breaking fire seasons in the state, about 75 representatives from diverse firefighting agencies gathered last week to plan, share information, and brainstorm about how to be better prepared to handle a fast-moving disaster.

The “large-fire” meeting brought together firefighters and fire managers, emergency personnel, weather forecasters and staff from local, state, federal and tribal agencies. While many of them have worked together in the past, they said it was invaluable to meet before the fire season to understand risks and roles — and simply build relationships.

One participant said this was the first time all these people had come together before the fire season to plan and share their expertise.

“It’s rare to draw everyone together,” said Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu, who said the May 26 meeting would help build preparedness and communication between multiple agencies that handle fires on land from as many jurisdictions — county, state, federal, tribal and private.

Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall and staff, the county’s Public Works administrative director, and a member of the county assessor’s staff attended for the county. County commissioners Ray Campbell and Jim DeTro were out of town at the National Association of Counties’ Western Interstate Region conference in Wyoming.

The in-depth review at the meeting was vital to be sure they understand how all the parties will be affected and that no one is left out, said Carlene Anders, a volunteer firefighter and executive director of the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery. “Everyone knows this stuff, but we need to be reminded. That’s what makes this so awesome,” she said. Anders was at the meeting as a participant, not a presenter.

Forecasting

While current forecasts are not as dire as for the past two fire seasons, the National Weather Service is anticipating above-normal temperatures but normal precipitation and lightning this summer, meteorologist Jeremy Wolf told the group. While Wolf emphasized the difficulty of issuing precise forecasts more than a week in advance, he pointed to data that suggests more “normal” conditions than in the past two summers.

Snow-water equivalent is still above 100 percent throughout most of Washington, whereas last year at this time it was less than half of normal, with some areas as low as 5 percent of normal, said Wolf. Although the North Cascades had the best snow-water equivalent in the state last year, at 66 percent of normal, this year it is 128 percent of normal.

On the other hand, temperatures have been 3 to 5 degrees above normal since the start of 2016. Because much of the snowpack melted early in unusually warm spring temperatures, many areas are experiencing an early green-up, said Wolf. While the profuse green vegetation is likely to mean an above-average number of fire starts, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will become large fires, he said.

Wolf predicted that fire season will start two to three weeks early this year. He described “normal” lightning as one or two storms that start a lot of fires.

Some of Wolf’s most-urgent remarks were about the importance of getting a spot forecast before attacking a fire and being aware of common afternoon wind shifts. “Know the weather before you engage,” he said.

General fire-weather forecasts are typically too generic to be useful for initial attack. Fire managers should request a spot forecast, particularly if the initial attack is expected to take more than two hours, said Wolf.

Entrapments typically occur when there is a sharp, sudden wind shift, often in the first 24 hours of attack, said Wolf. He observed that in recent entrapments in California and Arizona, firefighters had cell phone service, but in two entrapments in this area — Thirtymile and Twisp River — firefighters were beyond cell range.

Communication is key

Many presentations addressed shortcomings from the past two fire seasons, including gaps in communication between agencies, firefighters and the public.

Several participants urged a larger role for public information officers, for firefighters in the field and for the general public. Fires are often renamed because it helps with overall management, but the changing terminology can be confusing for the public and even for firefighters, they said.

If fires merge, communication becomes even more difficult — and more important, said Anders, who said it can be “like a three-D puzzle.” Anders, who worked on a volunteer crew in 2014 and 2015, said communication, coordination and deployment of firefighters had been much smoother last year.

Goodall wants the county’s emergency management office to be a central clearinghouse to disseminate information from public information officers and social media teams.

Social media can be an important tool in informing people about fires, but it can also spread inaccurate information, said Loren Torgerson, the northeast region manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Presenters also noted how dramatically conditions have changed. Ike Cawston, fire management officer with the Colville Tribes’ Mount Tolman Fire Center said, “In 1974, when I started, I thought a big fire was 1,000 acres. Now it’s 300,000 acres.”

DNR has acquired some additional resources, but received less than a third of what the agency requested from the Legislature. DNR asked for $24 million for staffing, equipment and training, but the final allocation was only $7 million, according to Bob Johnson, the agency’s wildfire division manager.

The funding enabled DNR to add 12 larger engines in eastern Washington, which accommodate four firefighters instead of three. It will also enable the agency to upgrade mountaintop communication facilities, add an aviation dispatcher, and conduct additional training, said Johnson.

New state laws that allow people to enter public land if they can safely fight a fire there and that allow livestock owners to check on their animals have gone smoothly, despite some initial concerns, said Johnson.

Several participants urged the agencies to organize a similar meeting twice a year — before the fire season and for an after-action review.