Cantwell hears local officials, responders on wildfires

By:  Ann McCreary
Source: Methow Valley News

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) came to Okanogan County last weekend to hear what local people think the county needs to fight future wildfires, and left with plenty to consider as she prepares wildfire management legislation.

Faster and more effective initial attacks when wildfires ignite; more funding for rural fire districts; increased use of prescribed fire to reduce wildfire risk; better communications systems during wildfire incidents; and better coordination and cooperation among firefighting agencies were recurring themes during a roundtable discussion organized by Cantwell on Saturday (May 7).

The session was attended by about 15 people from organizations with a stake in fighting wildfires, from small rural fire districts to the U.S. Forest Service. Held in the Okanogan County Commission chambers, the meeting was designed to give the senator some concrete ideas about issues that need to be addressed in legislation she is drafting on wildfire management and operations.

“This is the region that took it most right on the chin” during the past two fire seasons, Cantwell said as she opened the meeting. “You are my heroes. I want to hear what we need to do to better support you in the future.”

The threat of large wildfires like those in Okanogan County in 2014 and 2015 is expected to continue or increase due to climate change, Cantwell said.

“The science is very clear about forests, and what is going to happen to them. Look at what is happening to our neighbors in the north,” Cantwell said, referring to massive wildfires currently burning in Alberta, Canada.

Cantwell has held several roundtable discussions in eastern Washington to gather information about issues involved in wildfire management. She is working to develop a bipartisan wildfire bill to better prepare and protect communities from wildfire, including “more resources for hasty response” to wildfires, Cantwell said.

The need for fast response to fires that threaten communities was expressed many times during the meeting, particularly by representatives of rural fire districts.

A lightning strike on federal land near Conconully last summer was “put into monitoring status” after helicopters dropped water on it but did not put it entirely out, said Zac Claussen, Conconully fire chief.

Fanned by wind, the fire erupted and eventually merged with other lightning-started wildfires to become the Okanogan Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in state history.

“We need to look at some way to commit resources and knock it out … instead of letting it linger,” Claussen said. “There are a lot of ways we can utilize what we have in the system before it blows up and costs the taxpayers millions, billions of dollars.”

“We need to get back to aggressive attack,” agreed Kevin Bowling, Omak fire chief. “We’re not into suppressing any more, we’re into managing. We’ve got all the resources and technology — we’ve got to start using them.”

Resource issues

Being able to call in needed resources, however, can be difficult for small fire districts, said Cody Acord, interim fire chief of Okanogan County Fire District 6 in the Methow Valley.

During last summer’s Twisp River Fire, for example, District 6 officials could not immediately order a helicopter when they responded to the scene shortly after the fire ignited, because the district would have been financially liable for the cost if they requested the aerial support, Acord said.

“Ordering adequate resources was a huge problem,” Acord said.

In the Twisp River Fire incident, District 6 officials contacted the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to order a helicopter, because that department had “dual jurisdiction” on the land, Acord explained after the meeting. “It would speed up the process” if fire districts could order the resources directly without risking financial liability, he said.

“We work with rural fire departments to get rotors in the air, if they are available,” said Steve Harris of the DNR. “To me the volunteer fire districts are the backbone. They are the answer.”

“After the 2014 fire, we identified that initial attack has become the missing link,” said Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro, who said he worked as wildland firefighter for 52 years.

A member of the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, DeTro said the group has “talked about having someone in rural fire departments who is trained to make good solid decisions on aerial support, so if he says, ‘I want a bucket,’ it’s not going to fall back on his department.”

Wayne Walker of Lifeline Ambulance said state and federal agencies need to do a better job of coordinating with private, local firefighting services to prepare for fast response when wildfire risk is high.

“There’s no coordinated effort when fire severity is 99 percent, to work with private vendors and stage them. I don’t see DNR and the Forest Service partnering with private vendors,” he said.

Harris said DNR does contract with local firefighting vendors during high fire risk periods. “We call it pre-positioning. During red flag periods they are ready to roll.” But, he noted, “it costs a lot of money to put them on standby.”

Walker said effective response to wildfires is also hampered by an “antiquated” federal system of ordering resources that requires the Forest Service to utilize contracted firefighting services even though other resources may be more readily available.

“On initial attack we can go with local resources,” said Mike Liu, Methow Valley district ranger. “On extended events we are required to use contract resources.”

Sometimes that means “waiting for contract resources to come from out of state,” said Mary Verner of DNR.

Coordination problems

Fire crews arriving from other parts of the country may not be prepared for the conditions they encounter, according to Chris McCuen of Colville tribal emergency management.

During the Okanogan Complex Fire last summer, “we had crews from California and their eyes were the size of dinner plates,” he said.

He also criticized lack of coordination among incident management teams that are sent from around the country to manage wildfires.

“Last year we had two different management teams … fighting [fire] back-to-back and weren’t talking to each other. To see that lack of coordination really bothered me,” McCuen said.

State, federal and tribal representatives said they are working to resolve jurisdictional issues that can hamper effective response to wildfires.

“We’ve recognized that turf doesn’t work in this situation,” Verner said. “But even if everything was working seamlessly, there still aren’t enough resources.”

“From a resource perspective, we know our rural communities are under-resourced,” Cantwell said.

Okanogan Mayor Jon Culp called for more use of prescribed burning to reduce wildfire risk.

“It used to be, a long time ago, prescribed fire was a tool for forest and range management. We’ve become afraid of fire, whether because of liability or smoke. We need to get back to a point where we use it wisely and use it early and often so it [wildfire] doesn’t become catastrophic,” Culp said.

Cantwell said she envisions legislation calling for “tools to do fuels reduction up front … to address the risk given the changes we’ve seen in the past two fire seasons.”

Okanogan County has “miles and miles of wildland-urban interface,” Culp added. “People need to know how to do fuels reduction on their own property.”

Firefighter and Pateros Mayor Carlene Anders said homeowners need to work to make their homes defensible.

“I don’t believe our homeowners are being told if their homes are as defendable as they should be. We lost valuable people last year and we can’t have [firefighting] resources go out where there has not been work done” to make property defensible, Anders said.

Several speakers cited inadequate communications capabilities among firefighting agencies, and public systems that failed during the past two summers of wildfires — notably in the Methow Valley when the Carlton Complex knocked out phone, Internet and most cell phone service for several days.

Maurice Goodall, Okanogan County emergency services director, said communications during wildfire disasters involve “multiple agencies and multiple [radio] frequencies,” making communications between firefighters difficult or impossible.

Anders said while fighting fires during the past two summers she experienced situations when “we were only two-and-a-half miles away and one engine can’t talk to another.”

Cantwell said legislation should call for increasing broadband communication and providing improved weather radar capabilies in the region.

“You can’t marshal the resources of a command operation if people can’t communicate,” Cantwell said.