By Don Waller
Once again our valley has been challenged by fire. Fire that filled the air with smoke, sent flames through canyons, up and down slopes, threatened and burned homes, and fire that confronted, injured, and ultimately took the lives of three firefighters.
As chief of Okanogan County Fire District 6, I know that events like the Twisp River Fire become a blur for all of us, especially our district firefighters and their families. The tone goes off to alert our firefighters of the emergency, their adrenalin kicks in, and all they trained for takes over.
Turning an emergency response into a well-coordinated fire attack with a preplanned outcome of success is our version of dealing with chaos. Pre-planning, training to that plan, and execution of that plan are important aspects of achieving success. On Aug. 19 at 12:28 p.m., the district tone sounded. I was the first responder on scene, did a quick size-up, and then headed up Woods Canyon Road to survey the area. It was immediately apparent that all residences needed to be evacuated. District 6 units arrived, started the initial attack and positioned to protect the left and right flanks. Washington state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service resources arrived on scene and “unified command” was established to coordinate assignments, resources and communications — all in accordance with our multi-agency local response plans and the nationally mandated National Incident Management Plan.
Due to the number of fires throughout Okanogan and Chelan counties, the prospect of getting mutual aid from other fire districts was nonexistent.
As the “authority having jurisdiction,” I contacted the regional coordinator to request state mobilization. By 4 p.m. that day, state mobilization had been authorized. This provided financial assistance and access to resources we normally do not have.
The Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Management Team was assigned to the Twisp River Fire and operated as a branch of the Okanogan Complex. This same team worked with us on last year’s Carlton Complex Fire and was familiar with our area, resources, and personnel. It was the arrival and rapid integration of this team and the resources they brought that gave our local firefighters their first break after 40 hours of on-scene duty.
As the fire progressed, it became apparent that fire behavior and fire weather conditions would continue to worsen and there was a high potential for the fire to reach the town of Twisp and run up valley to Winthrop. We recommended to Okanogan County Emergency Management and the mayors of Twisp and Winthrop that Level 3 evacuation notices be implemented. Law enforcement agencies subsequently issued notifications. District 6 implemented its pre-plan for protection of Twisp, positioned resources at strategic locations, ran hydrant flow tests with the prepositioned engines, and began conditioning areas to prevent spot fires. Quickly this fire became the No. 1 priority in the Pacific Northwest, diverting resources from other fires to our area.
The fire continued to challenge all resources throughout the valley. It made runs towards Signal Hill, Twin Lakes, Pine Forest and Sun Mountain. Then the Black Canyon Fire started to spill over Hungry Mountain and threaten the South Fork Gold Creek. District 6 firefighters stayed on duty throughout these events, providing structure protection as well as responding to routine emergency calls throughout the district.
The support our firefighters received from the community and throughout the state was nothing short of phenomenal, and for this I thank you all. Thanks to the stores that stayed open to provide us with food, contractors who hooked up emergency power at the stations, citizens who put up signs of support, and those who delivered food to us night and day regardless of where we were located. Thanks to the firefighter families and friends who kept us going even while they themselves were dealing with the chaos of the fires. And a very special thanks to the firefighters from City of Spokane Fire Department, Spokane County Fire District 10, Chelan County Fire District 3, Chelan County Fire District 6, Cashmere Fire Department, Snohomish County Fire District 1, and Woodinville Fire Department who gave up their personal time to man the district stations so that we could attend the fallen firefighters memorial service and spend a day away from the chaos.
Don Waller is the Okanogan County Fire District 6 chief and lives in Winthrop.