Washington’s firefighters face flames near and far

Washington’s firefighters face flames near and far
During wildfire season, firefighters with local fire districts can find themselves combatting flames in their own communities or hundreds of miles away as part of an interagency response. Photo: Bureau of Land Management for Washington and Oregon

Washington firefighters in the past week were able to successfully combat several wildfires, including one that threatened the small community of Vantage near the Columbia River and forced the residents to evacuate. The efforts have involved numerous state and federal agencies, but also local fire districts that can find themselves suppressing flames in their own communities or hundreds of miles away in another part of the state.

The Ryegrass Coulee Fire near Vantage burned 7,500 acres and has now been 100 percent contained. Among the endangered structures, only a small outbuilding was consumed. Kittitas County Fire District Chief and Emergency Manager John Sinclair told Lens last week that “we were able to muster enough local resources to do point protecting. As the fire would burn down to parts of town, we would put engine companies there just as it was reaching the edge.

“You can’t really put it out, but you can redirect it,” he added. “In many cases, it burnt right up to the edge of the buildings.”

At the same time, state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and an assortment of fire agencies have contained a wildfire in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest south of Cashmere, near Camas Meadows. Starting on July 5, the Little Camas Fire burned over 300 acres and led to a Level 1 evacuation for the Camas Meadows Bible Camp and adjacent homes.

As of Friday, the wildfire is 95 percent contained and has been handed over to a DNR type 3 team.

However, getting to that point wasn’t a walk in the park for the firefighters who had to contend with the steep topography and strong winds. It also meant a full day’s work starting at 5:30 a.m. hauling hose line up and down hills.

“It’s worth it in the end when you see the fires out,” Madison Villines said. She along with Kyle Patterson and Kyle Frazier are firefighters with Clark County 10 Fire District, which covers the northern part of the county.

For all three, the wildfire was their first time visiting central Washington.

Despite their heavy gear, “the heat hasn’t been bad so far,” Patterson said. “Definitely the hardest part is the steep ground, walking up and down it every day.”

“I haven’t traveled a lot, so it’s nice to get called to a fire and go up north or go wherever the fire is and experience the new terrain and the different types of people that are out there,” Frazier said.

Having fought small local fires during last year’s season, he added that Little Camas was “a lot bigger scale. You really don’t know what it’s like until you experience it.”

Working a construction job, Frazier attended a 30-hour online wildfire class in the evenings, which he said provided a “good base foundation” for real life situations. “They talk about finding the weather and the different types of terrain that are potentially dangerous.”

Villines added that the more experienced firefighters “teach you more than the online stuff will.”

The daughter of a Camas-Washougal firefighter, she said “I’ve always been interested in…being a paramedic and firefighter, but I never thought about wildland fires. The guys would go out there every year and I’d be jealous, and I thought ‘I want to go do that (and) be out in the mountains’.”

On top of having to dig trenches along a ridgeline, the wind gusts presented a challenge for the firefighters.

“While mopping, there’s ash and charcoal and little spot fires can pop up or hotspots that weren’t completely put out,” Villines said. “We call out the weather every hour, but it’s hard to realize which way (it’ll blow).”

The successes so far this season also indicate that renewed efforts to improve interagency collaboration is paying off. Last year, the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee offered recommendations to DNR on how to improve the initial fire response. One of the problems they noted was “barriers to effective communication and suppression tactics.”

Previously, DNR conducted its wildfire training academies separately from the other local, state and federal agencies. However, now their annual wildfire academies involve 18 agencies and 35 fire districts.

“It’s a brotherhood; you all have a good time and work safely,” said Patterson, a four-year firefighter who originally attended wildfire training out of high school. “We all have pretty much the same goal out here, so we tend to think alike.”

Frazier said: “Having like-minded people to work with and positive people really helps.”

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