Summer months saw a high number of emergency calls
Last year was the busiest emergency response year in the 61-year history of Okanogan County Fire District 6, according to the district’s annual report.
District firefighters responded to 311 emergency calls in 2018, a 36 percent increase over 2017, according to the report prepared by district staff.
Emergency calls last year included 147 fires — 86 wildland fires in addition to structure and vehicle fires. Of the wildland fires, 28 percent were human-caused, the report said.
The district responded to 78 vehicle crashes/medical assist calls, 39 good intent calls (related to controlled burning or unauthorized burning), 21 service calls (for smoke or odor smell, or animal rescue), 20 false alarms, and six hazardous conditions (fuel spills, gas leaks, powerline issues).
“In the months of June and July alone, we responded to 56 calls, or about 20 percent of the year’s call volume,” the district report said. More than 2,600 firefighter hours were expended on emergency responses, 38 percent more than 2017.
During the wildland fire season, typically May through September, district firefighters responded to 33 calls throughout the valley. “A well-coordinated and aggressive attack plan involving the district, DNR [Department of Natural Resources] and the Forest Service kept all of these incidents from becoming major events and prevented the loss of any structures,” the report said.
The district also responded to an unusual November fire that broke out in Finley Canyon. At that time of year most U.S. Forest Service and DNR firefighting resources are at a minimum because seasonal firefighters have been released. The fire, which spread through terrain not accessible by vehicles, was controlled by district firefighters digging lines and using backpack water bags.
Such late-season fires may become more common, according to the report, due to “changing climate patterns (that) are also changing the wildland season.”
Last year’s fire season was dominated by the Crescent Mountain and McLeod wildland fires. Although the fires were on Forest Service land, the district was on high alert throughout the summer as the fires threatened to burn into district territory and put homes and citizens at risk.
“District staff coordinated with the Incident Command Center management team … and assisted in developing structure protection plans and evacuation plans,” the annual report said. For about two weeks the fires were ranked as the nation’s top priority for allocation of firefighting resources, and at the peak of activity the incident had more personnel here than the valley’s normal population, the report said.
During two days of highest threat from the Crescent Mountain fire, all District 6 personnel were staged at the Twisp Station on Twisp River Road to provide a quick response if needed to protect homes threatened by the fire. No structures were lost in the fire, the district report said.
The district trained six new volunteer firefighters in 2018, and each recruit spent an average of 330 hours to earn firefighter credentials. Volunteer firefighter recruiting and retention continues to be an issue, in keeping with a similar nationwide trend of declining numbers of volunteer firefighters, based on information from the National Volunteer Fire Council.
The average retention time of a volunteer in District 6 is five years, the report said. At year’s end the district firefighting personnel included five paid staff firefighters and 40 volunteers.
By the end of 2018 all of the district’s four stations (Carlton, Twisp, Winthrop and Mazama) were equipped with emergency backup generators that will keep facilities functional during power outages. Funding was provided through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant that was finalized in 2016.
The district also took delivery of two new brush trucks that replace 25-year-old vehicles. The new trucks were funded through a FEMA grant to improve wildland firefighting capability. Several district engines are approaching retirement age, and will cost from $400,000 to $600,000 each to replace, the annual report said.
The district’s Winthrop station, which is leased from the Town of Winthrop, was damaged when a water main broke on Englar Street and flooded the first floor with up to 5 inches of water. It took three months to completely repair damage and get the facility fully functional.
A survey conducted every five years by the Washington Survey and Rating Bureau to help insurance companies determine premiums was conducted in 2018. The ratings within the district remained unchanged from the previous survey, with the towns of Winthrop and Twisp rating 6 and areas in the district within 5 road miles of a station and covered by a hydrant or approved water supply system rating 7. The ratings range from 1-10 with 1 being the best. The results help fire commissioners and staff plan for district facilities and capabilities, the report said.