By Marcy Stamper
After last summer’s wildfires and an early, dry spring, people are especially jittery about spring burn piles that get out of control.
Okanogan County Fire District 6 has responded to a handful of fires in the past month, according to Assistant Fire Chief Cody Acord. Most of the fires were caused when burning of brush or fields got away.
While people may blame the low snowpack and lack of spring rain, Acord said the situation has not been atypical.
“It’s not unusual this time of year,” he said. “Usually, in the spring, the wind picks up in the afternoon. People are not done burning … and it kind of escapes.”
The most recent fire was on Moccasin Lake Ranch on Friday (April 3), when burning of a big patch of brush got out of control after the wind came up, according to Don Waller, fire chief for District 6. Because the burning thicket was surrounded by green fields, the firefighters decided to burn off the rest of the fuel, a mix of dead and live vegetation, said Waller. The fire was about half an acre, he said.
The fire district responded to a small fire up Twisp River on March 8, when someone was burning a field and the fire escaped into pine needles and timber, growing to about half an acre before firefighters extinguished it, said Acord.
Engines from Twisp, Winthrop and Carlton responded to a larger fire on Benson Creek on March 24, which had grown to about two acres and threatened a residence, said Acord. The fire was burning in sagebrush and grass — a chunk not burned by the Carlton Complex Fire — and took about two hours to control, said Acord.
A tree limb that fell on a powerline in strong winds on April 1 sparked a fire on Goat Creek Road near the Weeman Bridge when the wire hit the ground, according to David Gottula, general manager of the Okanogan County Electric Co-operative.
A couple of U.S. Forest Service employees had created a fire line around the fire by the time firefighters arrived, said Acord. “We were very fortunate. The wind was blowing pretty bad,” he said.
The electrical system is designed so that it automatically shuts off power to the surrounding area, so much of Mazama was without power for about an hour, said Gottula. Co-op technicians repaired the wire and restored power to all but three houses within the hour, said Gottula. Because those houses were unoccupied, crews were able to finish the work the next day, said Gottula.
People are allowed to burn natural vegetation in a single pile, no larger than four feet in size, on their own property without a permit. The burn pile must be at least 50 feet from structures and 500 feet from forest slash, and not surrounded by any flammable debris. Winds must be calm — if trees are swaying, it is too windy to burn.
People must attend the fire, with water and shovels, until the fire is completely extinguished and cold to the touch.
Before burning, call the Washington Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) burn line at (800) 323-BURN for restrictions. There is also information about outdoor burning on DNR’s website through a link on the home page at www.dnr.wa.gov at the bullet for “fire” under “featured topics.”