Washington Braces For Wildfire Season

Expectations are high for DNR to do its best

Washington Braces For Wildfire Season
The Okanagan Complex fire near Omak, Washington last summer consumed an estimated 256,567 acres. It was started by lightning. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Another wildfire season is coming to Washington state and $278 million in costs the last two summers add weight to inevitable concerns. How bad will it be this summer, and how prepared will be firefighters be? It could be a “normal” year, but that’s no longer as comforting as it might sound.

Last year’s wildfire havoc was the worst in state history. One million acres burned, costing the state $178 million. The 2014 wildfire season included the largest fire ever in Washington, with 386,000 acres burned and more than $100 million in firefighting costs.

Inferno: Part Three? Not Necessarily

Don’t count on Inferno: Part Three this summer. The upcoming wildfire season could be much milder compared to the last two years, according to a recent inter-state weather outlook.

In a weather outlook released last week the Portland-based Northwest Geographic Area Coordination Center predicted a normal fire season for the state (page 13).

A normal wildfire season is where “significant wild land fires should be expected at typical times.” In May 2015 the Coordination Center predicted above average fire potential for the state, but in 2014 it predicted normal conditions.

The State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has firefighting and regulatory authority over 13 million acres of state and private forests and also oversees several million acres of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land. USFS manages 9.3 million acres in the state. Firefighting on federal land is handled jointly.

Teaming Up And Getting It Right

DNR and USFS intend to practice wildfire fighting together along with local firefighting agencies. USFS has several prescribed burns planned near areas where some of the worst fires occurred.

To prepare in the next two months DNR plans to conduct training exercises in Yakima, Deer Park and Rainier, according to Janet Pearce, communications manager for DNR’s wildfire division. Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordered the National Guard last week to coordinate with DNR in training up to 250 guardsmen so they can assist during wildfire season.

Among the local agencies involved in the state-wide exercises is Douglas County Fire District 2. Covering parts of Wenatchee and the city of Rock Island, the district has nine full-time firefighters and 40 volunteer firefighters.

For the district, the inter-agency training enables the different jurisdictions to properly coordinate and respond to wildfires that can start on private lands but soon engulf both state and federal property as well, says Fire Marshall Brian Brett.

Once a fire gets that large, effectively containing it is “a difficult process to manage,” he said. “All agencies have land involved and structures threatened, so everybody has to work together.”

Among the wildfires fought by Douglas County Fire District 2 in 2015 was the Sleepy Hollow fire that scorched parts of the city of Wenatchee. The fire burned in total 2,950 acres including 29 residences and three commercial businesses.

Other fire districts in Okanogan County only have volunteer firefighters. As a result they rely heavily on DNR and the Forest Service for assistance if fires get out of control.

DNR’s Effectiveness Disputed

While private foresters who worked with DNR have told Lens they haven’t had any problems with the agency others don’t feel the same way. In response to a March 2016 Lens story on DNR reform, some Eastern Washington residents criticized DNR for not responding quickly enough to the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire.

“Most of these fires could of been put out within a few hours,” Jerry McKinney wrote on the story’s Facebook post. “Wait long enough the wind will come up and spread the fire.”

A similar charge was made in a lawsuit filed last November by three Okanogan County residents which claimed DNR personnel “abandoned fire lines” in the evening and didn’t return until the morning. The lawsuit also alleged the agency “prevented local volunteers and residents from helping neighbors battle the fire.”

Prevention Encouraged; Reforms In Place

DNR is also promoting ways for homeowners to protect their property through preventive measures.

After last year’s wildfires state legislators approved several wildfire reforms directed at DNR.

The agency is required to complete a forest health improvement project by the end of 2018 that in part involves prescribed burns intended to reduce fuel buildup in forest land. DNR also has to update its smoke management plan which regulates the use of prescribed burns, but Pearce said that won’t be completed for this wildfire season.

Wetter winter conditions also means more forest growth that could provide fuel for wildfires if the summer temperatures get too high, said Pearce.

Fire and Aviation Staff Officer Keith Satterfield helps oversee the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest for USFS. Like Weaver he believes the weather this month and in June will have a large impact on the wildfire season.

An updated weather outlook will be issued by the Coordination Center at the beginning of June.

Regardless, the federal agency is still preparing for a “new normal” wildfire season that is longer and more destructive than those in the past, said Public Affairs Officer Traci Weaver.

Firefighting Ate More Than Half Of USFS Budget Last Year

A tamer wildfire season could provide financial relief for the Forest Service. Last year over half the entire USFS budget was spent fighting wildfires in states like Washington and California. Back in the 1990s fighting wildfires took up less than 20 percent of the budget, said Pearce.

“It’s a broken system,” she said. “We would really like to see some changes made.”

In addition to training and meetings with local fire districts this month, USFS intends to carry out prescribed burns intended to thin out natural fuel so that fires pass through forests rather than consume them. The prescribed burns will target forest area near Twisp and Cle Elum.

Twisp was one of several towns evacuated last year due to the Okanogan Complex Fire, and also where three firefighters died in the line of duty.

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