Trial by fire: State prepares for wildfire season

Trial by fire: State prepares for wildfire season
Lens was on scene at the site of a controlled burn in central Washington as part of the state Department of Natural Resources’ wildfire training academy. As part of the exercise, 40 new seasonal firefighters learned how to attack a wildfire and dig containment lines along a hillside. Photo: TJ Martinell

In recent years, prescribed burning has regained popularity as a one way for state and federal agencies to restore the millions of acres of unhealthy Washington forestland suffering from high fuel loads and tree density. The state Department of Natural Resource (DNR) has also found these controlled and planned burns an effective way to teach new seasonal firefighters how to prepare for the real deal.

At an interagency wildfire training academy May 12-19 near Yakima hosted by DNR, 40 of the 400 firefighters underwent a “trial by fire” by putting out a controlled burn along a hillside on forestland located near Naches and the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. The area burned had already undergone forest health treatment by fire personnel to reduce fuel loads. The burn was carried out via two permits, one from DNR and another through the state Department of Ecology.

The fire exercise was just one part of the overall curriculum intended to not only teach firefighting skills such as cutting lines around wildfires, but also improving strategy, communication and unity among the 18 agencies and 35 fire districts that can often find themselves on the front lines together.

Chad James is the fire district manager for DNR’s southeast region, which includes 15 Washington counties and 880,000 acres of state trust land. He told Lens that while instruction is important for recruits, “I don’t think they’re really prepared to do it until they get out of the classroom and they’re out digging a line. It’s hard to explain to them (in a classroom) what that entails. Today kids are going to realize what it’s really like.”

James added that the wildfire academies also prepare them for the potential of long-term deployment. “It’s being away from home that is the toughest part.”

For some seasonal firefighters, the summer gig can act as a pipeline from higher education to a career; DNR officials say many of them are college students studying related fields who eventually get hired by the agency.

Fire suppression can also be hard to teach in theory because the weather conditions play a big role in how fire crews actually respond to a wildfire. At the controlled burn site on May 16, the ground crews first had to assess where the fire was headed, often determined by wind speed and direction. The trainees then dug a line and backup containment line to prevent it from escaping. Trainees learn to build these lines based on factors such as the slope, terrain and even soil type.

The academy and exercises such as the controlled burn also give recruits the chance to build rapport among colleagues in other agencies, a relatively recent opportunity.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz told media at the controlled burn site that in years prior, DNR and other agencies trained their members separately.

“When we got on the fires, (it was) maybe the first time we’ve actually met,” she said. “In being able to actually collectively train our firefighters together we’re helping coordinate and communicate better, build betters teams, so when we get on the fire line we can be more effective. The more that we can be training all of our different agency firefighters together before fire season…the more effective we’ll be on the ground during fire season.”

Improved teamwork may be all the more important as fire seasons have started consuming more of the year. A new U.S. Forest Service report found that the “Pacific Northwest spent a record 40 days at the highest Preparedness Level (5) during the 2017 wildfire season – almost three weeks more than in 2015.” A Forest Service statement added that “we faced multiple fires that crossed state, regional, and national borders, prompting multi-jurisdictional and even international fire management with our Canadian neighbors. We have learned that we cannot address the growing wildfire problems on our own. Rather, we strive to collaborate in all facets of preparedness, prevention, response and recovery.”

So far this year there have been more than 100 wildfires in Washington. The latest seasonal outlook from the Predictive Services National Interagency Fire Center predicts normal weather conditions in Washington through June. However, above normal fire conditions are predicted for southeastern Washington in July, as well as August for central and eastern Washington.

Further wildfire training academies are planned in Deer Park June 15-21 and in Rainier June 21-29.

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