Firefighters say protecting structures is not highest priority

By Ann McCreary

A recent community meeting about wildland firefighting raised questions about how agencies coordinate in fighting fires, the ramifications for firefighting of closed roads on public lands, and how decisions are made about protecting private property.

Hosted by Wenatchee Valley College, “Fire Operations in the Wildland Urban Interface” featured a panel of firefighting professionals and drew a small but engaged audience last Thursday evening (April 5) at the Twisp Valley Grange.

Wenatchee Valley College is launching a wildland fire program, said Marshall Brown, an instructor and moderator for the question and answer session. Last week’s public meeting was part of the college’s outreach efforts to encourage conversation about wildland fires in urban interface areas.

Panel members shared a consistent message: Homeowners living in wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas, like much of Okanogan County and the Methow Valley, shouldn’t count on firefighting agencies to save their homes in a wildfire.

“Most wildland fire crews don’t have structure training,” said Brown. “Their training is the outside of a structure.”

“Structure protection resources are always scarce resources,” said Kyle Cannon, a member of Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 2. Incident management teams are called in to manage large and complex wildfires.

The best protection for homeowners is taking preventive “Firewise” measures to help their houses and other buildings survive wildfire, Cannon said. “Ninety-nine percent of the bang for your buck is if you do it up front. Make it [your property] defensible and you can walk away from it,” he said.

Assistance in making homes and properties more defensible is available from a number of sources, panelists said. The Okanogan Conservation District can provide guidance on making properties defensible. The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a landowner assistance program to help share costs of thinning trees and improving forest health, said Ron Wonch, a DNR fire control forester. There are federal funds available to help property owners in WUI areas, Cannon said. 

Making decisions

Citizens asked panelists how fire managers decide whether to try to protect homes and neighborhoods. During the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, they said, some local residents questioned why fire crews didn’t respond to some requests from citizens to protect their homes.

In deciding where to assign crews, aircraft and other firefighting resources, fire managers consider where they are most needed and where they can be used most effectively, panelists said.

“There are tactical considerations. Resources are scarce so you use them as best you can,” said Wonch. Citizens concerned about protecting their homes during a wildfire may not understand why firefighters are sent elsewhere, he said.

“We might save one house, but it might mean a difference in saving 100 houses somewhere else,” Wonch said. A key consideration in assigning crews is how effective firefighting efforts will, he said. “The chance of success is really important in terms of decisions.”

Bruce Morrison, a Twisp resident, asked how fire managers decide whether it’s safe to send fire crews into particular areas to fight fires.

Fire managers consider a variety of factors, including fuels, weather, topography, the experience of fire crews and communications capabilities in determining where crews can be safely assigned, Cannon said. Firefighter safety is always a primary concern, but sometimes firefighters have to balance their “sense of duty” to try to save property with the risks they face.

“It’s a judgment call. All of our responders have a strong sense of duty associated with structures. People have a commitment … that may lead to taking more risks,” Cannon said.

“A challenge for every firefighter is not being able to go in and protect someone’s property,” said Cody Acord, chief of Okanogan County Fire District 6.

Evacuation choices

Some Methow Valley residents have chosen to ignore evacuation orders during past wildfires and have stayed at their homes to try to protect them. Fire and law enforcement officials can’t force people to leave their property, but residents who choose to stay do so at their own risk, the panelists said.

“If you stay to protect your property, there may not be firefighters there if it [the wildfire] turns around and comes back on you,” Acord said. “If you make that choice you take on the responsibility for your own safety,” Cannon said.

Paula Mackrow, a member of the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition, said she is concerned about back roads on public lands that have been privatized and gated, and cannot provide access for firefighters or evacuation routes for residents. “Do you guys know where the gates are locked?” she asked.

Wonch said DNR engines are equipped with bolt cutters if needed to get past fences or gates. “I’ve had people say, ‘Here’s a key to my gate or the combination to the lock,’” he said. Some communities and individual homeowners provide information to help fire crews prepare for wildfire, he said.

“The Chilliwist provides us maps every year” showing houses, gates, water holes, water tanks and other relevant information. “Being ready beforehand makes a world of difference,” Wonch said.

An audience member asked how agencies work together when they first respond to a fire, or when there is not an incident management team.

“Here in the Methow Valley we will often have all three agencies [Forest Service, DNR and county fire district] at the same time,” Wonch said. The agencies have trained together in a “unified command” approach that guides developing a plan for managing wildfires.

“The key is a pre-existing working relationship,” said Cannon. For example, the agencies plan to participate in a large wildfire simulation exercise on May 23 at the Winthrop Barn.

“In general, across the nation we are having larger fires and fires lasting longer,” Acord said. “We’re working on working better in the future.”