By Marcy Stamper
Emotion ran high as speakers erupted in tears and anger at a meeting called by the Okanogan County commissioners to gather information about the summer’s wildfires that will be used for emergency planning and coordination with agencies on fire response.
The main theme was a call for more local control — drawing on local knowledge of conditions and removing barriers that some believe prevented local fire crews and individuals from fighting the Carlton Complex Fire in time to be effective.
“We want you to tell us what you want the commissioners to hear. You can pose questions, but there will be no answers tonight,” said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston before inviting people to speak at the Oct. 25 meeting, which drew about 60 people. About 15 shared their experiences during the blaze.
Many of the speakers had harsh words for crews from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), whom they charged with sitting and watching while homeowners scrambled to protect their property.
A familiar refrain came from people who said they had begged DNR and other fire crews to help put their house out, only to be met with inaction. “DNR watched while we cut a fire line. There was no offer to help,” said one.
Some charged that DNR had threatened them with arrest if they entered state property to put out a fire.
“In this county, you’re on your own for fire,” said Mike Maltais, who lost his house on the Loup. Maltais said there had been a good-sized crew of firefighters and unlimited water to fight the fire. “It was so stupid and simple to stop,” he said. He said he would hire a private crew in the future and allow them to do what’s necessary to protect his property.
Bill Hanson of Carlton, a private contractor who handles communications for aviation in fires, criticized the complex, lengthy and costly contract requirements imposed by the state. If the process were not so cumbersome, crews could have been at work on the Carlton Complex Fire sooner, said Hanson.
Hanson also questioned why crews were brought in from other states while local crews sat idle, and said the state appeared to be spending a lot of money on new equipment and on meals, but none in this county.
Dave Schulz, a former county commissioner, current county planning commissioner and orchardist in Twisp who also lost acres of timber in the fire, came to the meeting from a recent stay in the hospital to testify. “The problem is, we have lost local control,” said Schulz, who said area residents are familiar with wind and weather patterns and need to be part of any team fighting a major fire.
Schulz also criticized forest management, saying that fuels have become too dense.
Schulz was one of several speakers to suggest that the fires could have been put out within the first day, before they grew out of control. “One of my main questions is, why was the fire not stopped?,” asked a man from Twisp.
Some questioned whether crews had inadequate training or had been ordered not to engage a fire. “It’s common sense — when there’s a fire, you put it out,” said one speaker.
Several veteran firefighters noted the unprecedented ferocity of the blaze. Carlene Anders, who has been a firefighter for 30 years, said she had never seen a fire like this.
Many speakers focused on problems with communication — the inability to call 911, limited communication between fire crews, and inadequate evacuation notices. In light of the difficulties with communication, “it is amazing to me that no one died,” said Anders. “Going around town [Pateros] with a megaphone trying to get people out of town — it’s devastating. I know the magnitude of the fire was incredible,” she said.
Anders said fire crews have less ability to talk among themselves than they did years ago. As executive director of the Brewster-Pateros Long Term Recovery Organization, Anders said they are focusing on ways of improving communication at all levels.
Steve Kieffer, a heavy equipment contractor who was called out on the first day of the fire at Texas Creek, said there had been confusion about where to deploy, costing him an hour and a half before he could get to work.
Phil Dart, the Molson fire chief for the past 30 years, said he has seen a huge shift in the approach to fighting fires since the Thirtymile Fire, which killed four firefighters in the Methow Valley in 2001. “You can’t fight aggressively because you can’t get somebody hurt,” said Dart.
Dart also urged people to take steps to make their property defensible. “What you do before a fire starts is what’s going to save your home,” he said. “Ninety percent of the homes that were saved follow Firewise principles. It pains a firefighter to have to pass up a house because he thinks he can’t save it.”
Praise was reserved for the efforts of local firefighters and the county commissioners for their ongoing involvement with the issue. Some speakers said they had gotten to know their neighbors better as a result of the tragedy.
County Commissioner Ray Campbell said the commissioners would take the information to the state Legislature.
“There’s a lot of emotion, which is to be expected,” said Campbell in an interview after the meeting. “But the message, time and time again, is that the fire wasn’t fought aggressively like it should have been.”