Here we are in the fire-scarred Methow, warming up for what experts predict will be another highly dangerous wildfire season, perhaps starting as early as June. What will be done differently this time?
Next to nothing. There is one exception. But first, a reality check: Where are we with fire protection?
Recently, Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials came to the Methow Valley Community Center in Twisp to clear up any … ahem … “misunderstandings” about DNR’s firefighting efforts. Its firefighters have been criticized for refusing to help save homes adjacent to burning DNR lands and for failing to extinguish small fires that merged into the Carlton Complex inferno.
DNR is entrusted with 54,700 acres of our lands in the Methow. But its fire crews are neither trained nor equipped to save structures, said DNR spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser. Plus, they’re trained only to the National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group’s “minimum standard.” Eleven-hundred DNR firefighters will be available statewide. DNR’s Northeast Region, headquartered in Colville, has 31 fire engines shared by Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, Spokane, Pend Oreille and parts of Lincoln counties.
“What are you doing to be pro-active this time … so we don’t see the same thing again?” asked a woman in the audience.
Good question. Answer? Umm … not so much. Happily, the agency is organizing earlier for this fire season, said Mary Verner, a deputy DNR supervisor. Northeast Region manager Loren Torgerson’s mantra? “We always fight fires aggressively.”
Perhaps so. But Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell said after the meeting that he believes the DNR “mismanaged” last summer’s fires and he’s worried about this summer because he doesn’t see any change in DNR’s approach.
Torgerson explained before the meeting that DNR has made no changes in policy, training or procedures since last summer. But it has requested $20 million from the Legislature for “forest health” measures such as thinning and reducing fuels on eastern Washington’s 2.7 million acres of perilously overgrown forests, plus $4.5 million for additional resources such as training. No decisions from lawmakers yet.
No additional funds
The U.S. Forest Service’s Methow Ranger District has no more money to fight fires this year than last, said fire manager Jeff Dimke. The district will have 35 to 40 firefighters to cover its 1.3 million acres in the Methow; it has two fire engines and access to shared smokejumpers and aircraft.
Congress meanwhile dithers over the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which provides no funds for firefighting but shifts the cost of fighting catastrophic wildfires from federal natural resource agency budgets into that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where it belongs. Forest Service and other agencies are bankrupting their operating budgets fighting catastrophic fires. Funds desperately needed for reducing fuels to avoid cataclysmic fires are instead spent fighting cataclysmic fires. Duh, people. Hello?
Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Don Waller said he expects to have 40 volunteer firefighters for the 350 square miles of its jurisdiction. The fire district has made no policy or operational changes, said Waller. He praised the professionalism of local volunteers working last summer’s fires, who he said performed “beyond expectations.”
When locally based firefighters are overmatched, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise steps in, allocating manpower and equipment to the nation’s worst fires. The ever-more arid West is being consumed by ever-worse wildfires, and there’s not enough money to go around.
When faced with multiple fires and limited resources, firefighters must prioritize. This means house fires will be fought if and where houses are defensible. Waller said District 6, when prioritizing emergencies, will take its equipment where it will be most effective. “It’s called triage,” he said.
Bottom line? It’s up to homeowners to be proactive, to protect their homes by making them less burnable, readily defensible and accessible by fire crews. Prepare to be left to your own devices if there’s another firestorm. Down valley, some homeowners last summer saved their houses with shovels and dirt.
And get to know Kirsten Cook, education and outreach coordinator for the Okanogan Conservation District’s Firewise program, firstname.lastname@example.org. She explains, free of charge, how to reduce your risk of fire. She says she’s never issued a “low” fire risk rating to anyone in the county. It’s too dry.
Cook alerts homeowners with houses on steep slopes that they’re at high risk of fire, as are houses surrounded by bitterbrush or thick with pines and their flammable needles and duff, and those with flammable plantings against foundations. If your grass grows two feet tall, said Cook, expect six-foot flames. The formula is fuel height times three equals flame height.
Can fire engines enter and turn around in your driveway? (What were you thinking?) Are your vents screened with 1/8th-inch metal mesh to block flying embers? Wooden decks are vulnerable to wind-driven embers, added Cook; when there’s a red flag warning, clear those decks of burnables — furniture, doormats.
The welcome news is that Okanogan County’s Department of Emergency Management has installed an emergency alert system that promises to fill some of last summer’s gaping fire information void.
Sign up for free landline, cell phone, email or text notifications about emergencies — fire, flood, severe weather. Choose locations you want to be informed about: home, school, workplace, elderly parents’ address. More information is available at okanogandem.org, or (509) 422-7206.
Then pray for rain.
Solveig Torvik is pulling bitterbrush in Winthrop.