Wildfires in “no man’s land”

Wildfires in “no man’s land”
State lawmakers unanimously approved HB 2561 this session, calling on the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee to look at how to improve fire responses in areas without fire districts, known as “no man’s land.” Photo: Department of Natural Resources.

Outside the jurisdiction of Washington’s 417 fire departments and fire stations are regions of the state known as “no man’s land”; territory where no one is responsible for responding to wildfires occurring there. It’s a problem that has inspired state lawmakers to enact a new bipartisan law calling for the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee to find ways to improve the initial fire attack in those areas.

The issue of no man’s land has come up in previous legislative sessions. In 2009, the Dry Creek Fire burned 49,000 acres near Sunnyside in Eastern Washington, costing nearly $900,000 (over $1 million in 2018 when adjusted for inflation). As a direct response, in 2011 legislators approved a bill requiring that potential land buyers be notified if the property was located in one of these areas.

Now state lawmakers are calling for solutions when it comes to dealing with wildfires in those regions that, if not quickly suppressed, can spread to nearby fire district land.

As a result, HB 2561 was approved unanimously by both chambers. Sponsored by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13), the bill allows Public Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz to expand the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee’s scope to account for no man’s land, among other dilemmas such as communicating with non-English speaking state residents during wildfires.

Dent told Lens that wildfires originating outside of any jurisdiction can be particularly destructive not just in total acreage burned, but in costs. A response doesn’t occur until the fire has entered a fire district’s jurisdiction. By then, it’s much larger and more difficult to put out than it would have been during an initial attack.

But there’s another problem: the Washington State Fire Services Resource Mobilization Plan can’t be activated until a district has exhausted all available resources.

The result is larger wildfires that can “gobble up” the small budgets of rural districts, Dent said. “I do hear a lot from constituents and others in the fire world; they’d like to see something change. They’re much easier to put out when they’re small than when they’re big.”

Dent’s district includes Kittitas County, one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. Yet, only a quarter of the land is developable. Much of the remaining property is rangeland and other terrain susceptible to prairie fires. In the last six years, the county has had five major wildfires. That includes last year’s Jolly Mountain Fire that consumed almost 37,000 acres and threatened the towns of Cle Elum and Roslyn.

Last year’s season also included the Sutherland Canyon Fire that burned over 38,000 acres near East Wenatchee, including private ranch property unprotected by any fire district.

Improving the initial fire response has been a central theme for the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, which holds monthly meetings. Composed of over a dozen members representing DNR, Forest Service and the timber industry, the committee is chaired by Gary Berndt, a retired firefighter and former assistant regional manager for DNR’s southeast region where much of no man’s land is located.

“It’s been a great committee and the people who are on (it) are motivated individuals who ‘get it,’ and they want to make a difference,” Dent said.

Faster initial responses could mean less severe wildfires and fewer taxpayer dollars burned up in firefighting costs. It’s also the first priority among many local fire jurisdictions in Dent’s district.

However, in no man’s land the conundrum is deciding which jurisdictions should respond – if at all – and how to pay for it.

Districts near those areas but with paltry $50,000 annual budgets can’t do it, Dent said.

On the other side are those who another possibility is eliminating no man’s land altogether by either annexing it into existing jurisdictions or creating new ones. It was a view expressed back in 2009 by Bill Gabbert at Wildfire Today. Writing in response to the Dry Creek Fire, he argued that “no one would advocate standing down in an emergency. But there must be some incentive for landowners to allow themselves to be annexed into a fire district or create their own fire district. Simply mandating away fire district boundaries is a very quick fix that, in reality, is no fix at all.”

Berndt told Lens that many districts may also oppose annexing these unprotected lands because they don’t believe they can adequately protect them. Annexation can also increase their response times and as a result affect insurance ratings.

HB 2561 awaits Governor Jay Inslee’s signature.

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