By Marcy Stamper
Concerned about what they say are gaps in the earliest stages of firefighting that contribute to the growth of large, catastrophic wildfires, the Okanogan County commissioners are considering several proposals to the state Legislature.
The ideas grow out of community meetings and discussions with fire chiefs and others with experience in wildland fire, according to a memorandum drafted last week by Perry
Huston, the county’s administrative officer and planning director. Huston’s memo builds on a brainstorming session held by the commissioners, emergency manager and fire-district representatives in November.
The commissioners have identified three major challenges that pose obstacles to effective wildfire suppression, according to the memo. One challenge is a failure to mount an aggressive response after the initial discovery of a fire, “driven in part by the apparent policy to manage the fires by monitoring initial spread,” wrote Huston.
The commissioners also believe there are not enough additional resources available to suppress a fire between the initial local response and state mobilization, which brings firefighters from across the state. The third obstacle is the failure of state-level incident-command teams to draw on local expertise, wrote Huston.
To help control the spread of a fire, the commissioners are considering asking the Legislature to amend the state law regarding fire-protection services so that additional resources would be available to initial responders within the first 24 hours of a fire.
“We need something in between local firefighters and mutual aid [state mobilization] to hit the fire right now,” said Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall, who has been participating in some of the commissioners’ discussions. “When people come into the county, they must put the fire out, not just manage it,” he said.
To provide more resources between initial attack and the onset of state mobilization, the commissioners may propose creation of a new fund in the state treasury with at least half a million dollars. The money would be used to pay additional firefighting resources drawn from a list maintained by a county or other local jurisdiction. Tapping the fund would require the county to declare an emergency.
“The Commissioners believe that if additional resources were available during the initial attack on wildfire the likelihood of the fire spreading to catastrophic proportions would be greatly minimized. A more aggressive response would in the end save money,” wrote Huston.
The third proposal is intended to address a loss of “focus and efficiency” in fire suppression because of a lack of “knowledge on the ground,” such as an understanding of local terrain, weather and the history of wildfire behavior.
When teams arrive from outside the area, they often don’t know local experts or don’t have the time to evaluate their credentials, according to the memo. This proposal would create a list of people from the area with expertise in fire suppression. In addition, the list would include people with equipment for firefighting.
The local expert would become part of the larger incident-management team. “The incident commander and team leaders will give great deference to the fire suppression expert when decisions regarding fire suppression activities are made,” according to Huston’s proposed amendment to state law.
Huston’s proposals are a starting point for further discussion. They do not address some concerns raised at the November meeting, including a more detailed structure for the chain of command that would encompass potential liability when deploying firefighters.
The commissioners began to review Huston’s proposals this week but have not made any decisions.