By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County wants to create its own local emergency response plan for wildfires to promptly deploy local resources and position them in advance in high-risk areas.
The idea for a pilot program for local emergency response was proposed by Okanogan County commissioners Ray Campbell and Jim DeTro in their testimony before the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee at a work session about the Carlton Complex Fire on Thursday (Jan. 29).
The pilot program “would contain standing orders for initial assessment, and response to wildfire would be implemented by dispatch staff at initial report. It would identify available local resources and their location, with standing orders regarding their deployment,” Campbell told the committee.
The commissioners provided two memos to the House committee outlining their proposal and seeking the statutory authority to create the local response group. They seek $1 million for the pilot project, to be split evenly between the first two years. The memos were signed by all three county commissioners.
The commissioners believe the local approach would reduce both the costs of fire suppression and resource damage, Campbell told the committee.
“We relied on an agency to do this [protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens] last year. We thought they’d take care of this for us. Guess what? They didn’t,” said Campbell. “It’s our job to do that now, so we’re asking for help.”
“We believe that this is the missing link and are excited to come before you today with a solution,” said DeTro, who said that state law provides a framework for the locally based response.
Campbell likened the approach to the direct response law enforcement agencies use to contain and evaluate active-shooter events. Following a similar protocol — with its rehearsed rapid response and reliance on advance knowledge of resources — would save time and increase the likelihood of saving lives, said Campbell.
If authorized, the county’s emergency response plan would identify high-risk areas, analyze the availability of local resources for early detection and rapid response, and create a communication infrastructure for initial attack. It would also eliminate liability for decision makers who follow the protocol, according to the memos.
The local plan would still follow the incident command system, which relies on a hierarchy of standardized titles, terminology and jobs.
“By creating a more efficient initial response to local disaster; which utilizes local resources more rapidly and efficiently, the potential for loss of human life and of damage to resources and property will be greatly reduced. This outcome will result in a net savings of millions of dollars with a high likelihood the savings will be realized in a single fire season in Okanogan County,” according to the memo.
The commissioners contend that the county missed an opportunity to mount an aggressive initial attack on the fire last summer. “It is our belief that this missed opportunity was in large part due to the lack of a compact chain of command and the absence of a pre-determined response plan,” they said in the memo.
Indecision at the initial stages and ineffective deployment created a catastrophe last summer, said DeTro, who spent more than 50 years as a firefighter, most as a smokejumper. He said it is unrealistic to expect a large bureaucracy to respond quickly and aggressively.
If they get a go-ahead from the state, the commissioners say they will be able to amend the county’s emergency plan in time for the 2015 fire season.
A spokesperson for the state Military Department, which reviews local emergency plans for consistency with state law, said he did not know if other local jurisdictions have taken a similar approach. Local emergency firefighting plans typically do not go into the level of detail outlined in the commissioners’ memos, he said.
DNR heard from
In the two-hour work session, the House committee also heard from several Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staffers, who described the severe 2014 fire season. They also outlined the major steps the agency is taking to be better prepared, including improvements in training for initial attack and pre-positioning resources in high-risk areas.
DNR is also working to improve coordination with firefighting partners and to ensure reliable radio communications.
Representatives from the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group told the committee about ongoing challenges. They also enumerated shortcomings they said had interfered with prompt deployment of resources during the fire.
Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) showed photos he said illustrated the effectiveness of efforts by private citizens and local companies in fighting the fire, such as using orchard sprayers to wet roads.
Other speakers echoed the same theme, saying it had taken too long for fire managers to make decisions and that efforts by the private sector had been more effective.
The committee also heard about measures being taken by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to re-seed and replant trees to provide natural browse for wildlife, grazing lands for cattle, and to combat erosion.
The work session can be watched on www.tvw.org in the archives for Jan. 29.