Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and half a dozen firefighters from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) came to the Methow Valley Rodeo last weekend to remind people of the vital collaboration between professional and volunteer firefighters.
Visiting Winthrop on Labor Day weekend was no accident. Even as wildfires grow more severe across the state, “Okanogan County is ground zero for fires,” Franz said. The Labor Day weekend is traditionally the most challenging for fire crews, since vegetation has had all summer to dry out and people are out recreating and not always aware — or careful — about the extreme fire risk, she said. The vast majority of fires are human caused.
State, federal and local firefighters – like the volunteers for Okanogan County Fire District 6 — work and train together, building a single team with no jurisdictional boundaries, Franz said.
Although firefighters with District 6 have specialized training and equipment to attack structure fires, they’re also all trained as wildland firefighters, Franz said. Today, the division between wild lands and developed area is increasingly blurred — fires start in natural areas and quickly advance to populous areas. Local firefighters also bring crucial knowledge about the local area and terrain, she said.
DNR had no budget for firefighting when Franz was elected in 2016, but was instead reimbursed after the fact. Now, DNR has a budget for firefighters, engines, bulldozers and aircraft. Surplus equipment, including personal protective equipment for firefighters, is donated to rural volunteer fire districts like Riverside and Chesaw. Many places that face the highest risk of wildfire don’t have the money for necessary resources. DNR gave away 18 fire trucks this year, she said.
Other DNR programs help communities become more fire-resilient, such as Wildfire Ready Neighbors, where DNR fire crews do a home assessment and draw up a customized plan to create defensible space.
There’s a perception in the community that District 6 is fully staffed, said Brandon Richison, a volunteer at the Carlton station who joined Franz at the rodeo. But the district has just five full-time staff — all the other firefighters are volunteers, he said. They currently have about 50 volunteers at the four stations from Mazama to Carlton,
People interested in volunteering can stop by any District 6 station or call (509) 996-2227. After basic firefighting training, volunteer firefighters may be eligible for additional special-skills training. All training is paid for by the fire district. The DNR training interagency training is free, as long as firefigthers are affiliated with a fire department.