By Marcy Stamper
People from across the Northwest — and as far away as Florida and Rhode Island — have overwhelmed the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in response to a call for volunteers to help fight wildfires in the state.
Between 25 and 30 people, all with prior experience and certification in firefighting, had already been deployed on the fires in the Okanogan Complex as of Monday (Aug. 24), according to Joe Smilie, a DNR spokesperson.
Since DNR issued the call Thursday night (Aug. 20) for experienced equipment operators and firefighters, the agency has received some 4,000 applications, said Smilie.
“It was above and beyond what we were expecting,” he said. During the first few days, the voice-mail system they set up to handle the applicants would fill up as soon as they emptied it, he said. The influx has become more manageable with volunteers from the Omak Rotary Club and local churches helping answer phones and emails, said Smilie.
Some applicants are highly qualified, including experienced firefighters who haven’t worked recently, and others are just eager to help. One man called from Alabama to say he had a pick-up truck, a shovel and a strong back, said Smilie.
DNR has added about 500 names to its roster, including 110 people who attended safety trainings in Omak and another 200 in Colville this past weekend. Two hundred more already had the necessary certification, said Smilie. Once in the database, DNR will call up people as needed. DNR personnel are still reviewing the qualifications of the other 3,500 respondents.
DNR is primarily seeking licensed equipment operators — people who can run bulldozers, water trucks and logging equipment such as feller bunchers, said Smilie. They are also looking for people with equipment to rent.
Since loggers have been restricted from working in the forest because of the risk of wildfire, many were eager to put their skills to use, said Smilie.
All the civilian “volunteers” (they are not really volunteers, since they will be paid if deployed) must complete basic-safety training, including the use of emergency fire shelters, before they can be added to DNR’s roster.
The civilians will not be assigned near active fires but would build fire lines away from the flame front, said Smilie.
The agency has also gotten applications from experienced firefighters who had already completed the 40-hour training for an incident qualification card (often called a red card), some of whom may require only a refresher course, said Smilie.
After the Carlton Complex Fire, some elected officials and members of the public voiced frustration that agencies such as DNR had not made use of local people to help fight the fire. Several bills were introduced in the Legislature intended to address these concerns.
The one that became law requires DNR to maintain a list of qualified firefighters and private contractors to maximize the use of local firefighters. It was sponsored by several local representatives, including Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda), Shelly Short (R-Addy) and Cary Condotta (R-East Wenatchee), and received unanimous support in both houses. Smilie said the new law had made it easier to launch the wildfire-volunteer program.
DNR held information and recruitment sessions last spring but didn’t get the response it had hoped for, said Smilie. Agency managers hope that this surge will provide a better pool of qualified firefighters for next season.
People who called simply wanting to help have been steered to the Red Cross or the Okanogan County Community Action Council, said Smilie. Others have been sent to help feed evacuated animals. People staffing the centers also urged people without appropriate experience to contact their local fire districts to volunteer and receive training.
People interested in volunteering can call (360) 826-2546, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. They can also apply online at www.dnr.wa.gov/WildfireVolunteer, where there is a prescreening survey. A walk-in citizen resource center at Omak City Hall will probably be closed this week.