Towns Rebuilding After Wildfires; State Aims To Improve Prevention, Response

Towns Rebuilding After Wildfires, As State Mulls Prevention, Preparedness
Charred vehicles and land were part of the aftermath of the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, Washington state's largest ever. It burned 256,108 acres and destroyed 322 homes. As local residents and non-profits work to rebuild dwellings, a state advisory group launched last December is developing recommendations on wildfire prevention and preparedness. Photo: Robert Patten

In 2014 the Carlton Complex wildfire burned 150 homes in and around the city of Pateros in Okanogan County. The largest wildfire in state history forced the entire town to evacuate; afterwards a tenth of the city’s residents had left. Two years later the community is still trying to recover.

Pateros Mayor Carlene Anders is a local volunteer firefighter and used to battle blazes for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In addition to the Carlton Complex in 2014, she fought the Sleepy Hollow fire near Wenatchee and the Okanogan Complex fire last summer.

She’s also the executive director of the Okanogan County Long-Term Recovery Group. First formed in 2014 after the Carlton Complex fire, the recovery group is helping raise financial and material support to rebuild homes destroyed by the wildfires. After last year’s wildfire season they expanded their outreach to Chelan, Douglas and Stevens counties.

Progress On Rebuilding Of Homes Lost To Wildfire

Their goal is to rebuild 40 homes in all. So far, they’ve rebuilt 29.

Meanwhile, the city of Pateros is preparing for this year’s wildfire season. Although the Portland-based Northwest Geographic Area Coordination Center predicted a normal fire season for the state, two wildfires have already broken out in Western Washington near Oso and Gold Bar earlier this month. The fires burned more than 400 acres of federal land before they were contained. It is not known yet how the fires started.

Most 2015 Washington Wildfires Human-Caused

Last year 1,541 fires burned over one million acres of land in the state. Of those fires 70 percent were caused by humans while 30 percent were caused by lightning, according to a December 2015 report issued by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13). Last year’s wildfire season cost the state a record $178 million, compared to more than $100 million in 2014.

Homeowners Can Help Protect Their Property From Wildfires

In Pateros much of the preparation has focused on steps homeowners can take to protect their property. The National Association of State Foresters’s Firewise Program encourages homeowners to protect their property by creating a fire-resistant barrier within five feet of their home using non-flammable landscaping material or high-moisture plants.

Anders has also met with state and federal officials including U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) this month to discuss possible changes to fire prevention methods and firefighting tactics.

Communication Breakdown

Reflecting on 2014, DNR officials and local lawmakers at the meeting noted a breakdown in communication after the Carlton Complex fire disabled Internet and phone service, forcing firefighters to rely on radios. However, the agencies used different frequencies, which made coordinating impossible.

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

The state and local officials also felt many of the initial responses to the wildfires were inadequate, something Anders said needs to change.

The Night Time is The Right Time

“We definitely want to do whatever we can to allow firefighters to fight, and do what they need to do,” Anders said. That includes things such as clearing fuel from the forest floor, plus forest thinning and prescribed burns. “We really need to be using the resources that we have in our state to the most efficient level,” she added.

Anders also favors more aggressive firefighting during morning and night hours. Putting inappropriate restrictions on firefighters is like “sending our soldiers out and saying ‘You can only engage the enemy when they’re strongest,’” she said.

State Wildfire Advisory Group Working On Recommendations

Some of these ideas are being considered by the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, though nighttime firefighting isn’t one of them.

Set up by the state legislature, the committee is working on a report they expect to present to outgoing Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark before October. The report will include recommendations on how to make better use of existing state and local resources, and improve forest health.

The next committee meeting is June 1. The chair is Gary Berndt, a retired firefighter and former assistant regional manager for DNR’s southeast region.

Prescribed Burns, Project-Picking, Better Teamwork

The committee’s report will address how best to implement the forest health improvement pilot project the state legislature approved this year. The project is part of the push for more prescribed burns on DNR-managed land. Advocates believe these are essential to reducing forest fuel. Another committee task will be picking projects to recommend, determining their cost and how to acquire the funds to pay for them.

The report will also include ways to improve state coordination with the hundreds of fire districts in the state. It’s something Berndt found essential to his work overseeing the southeastern section of DNR-managed land.

“Often it comes down to relationships that you have,” he said. “As (assistant regional manager) I had our folks really work with those districts and the chiefs. We had good communications. I think that’s really a key.”

It’s strong coordination between the various agencies that Kittitas County firefighter Russ Hobbs credited for the successful suppression of a fire last year on I-90 that threatened the city of Cle Elum.

“Never before have agencies in Kittitas County worked at this level of cooperative effort,” he said. The statement was part of the wildfire report put out last fall by Dent.

The 2015 Dent report blames the unprecedented level of recent wildfire devastation on laxity around forest health, “wildlife management, organizational communication and responsible budgeting.” The report advocated the use of forest thinning as a way to reduce the likelihood and intensity of wildfires, which would then create “quantifiable cost savings.”

However, the immediate costs of thinning can be high because there is no commercial use for the debris. For private landowners, a DNR grant for forest thinning is available to cover a portion of the costs. The advisory committee hopes to develop practical uses for the material left over from forest thinning, in order to cut those costs.

Large Pool of Untapped Volunteers

The advisory committee’s recommendations might also address the large pool of untapped volunteers.

Last year 11,450 firefighters and support personnel helped fight wildfires. However, 1,000 volunteers sat idle due to a “lack of training and/or not having the required safety equipment,” according to the Dent report.

DNR is already educating local communities about how and where people can help. Local fire districts can accept certified volunteer firefighters, but DNR cannot.

“There’s a wealth of resources in Washington state,” said Berndt. The challenge will be pooling all of it together, he added.

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