While weather conditions such as wind and temperatures may determine the severity of this year’s wildfires season in Washington state, the outcome could also hinge on the ability of fire agencies and fire districts to communicate during joint operations.
To ensure that responders on the fireline not only know how to work with the equipment, but also understand how to work with each other – regardless of which jurisdiction they’re from – the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hosted an interagency wildfire training academy May 16-25 near Yakima.
The academy involved over 400 firefighters from 11 state, local and national agencies, as well as 21 fire districts and departments from all parts of Washington. Although the firefighters learned how to operate fire equipment and machinery such as chainsaws and hoses, and also were taught fire-suppression strategies, much of their training consisted of team-building exercises intended to instill leadership skills and foster collaboration among the attendees.
DNR officials hope the lessons learned will later pay dividends during interagency operations by eliminating confusion and delay that can occur during transitions between jurisdictions as a wildfire spreads. To prepare new firefighters, a live fire exercise was put on in an area that had previously undergone restoration work by DNR.
The importance of interagency collaboration was heavily impressed upon firefighters participating in the 2014 and 2015 wildfire seasons, when record-setting complex fires had DNR requesting firefighters as far away as New Zealand. In a 2016 report from the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, six of the top recommendations were on how to improve interagency relations.
The committee is chaired by Gary Berndt, a retired firefighter and former assistant regional manager for DNR’s southeast region.
Improved communication is something that has also been emphasized by private foresters whose property often abuts public state and federal lands.
DNR Community Outreach Coordinator Nick Cronquist told Lens that placing all agencies and districts under the same training program “really kind of brings that comradery together, and that way we’re building that relationship right now versus having to try to do that on a fire.”
He added: “Fire does not hold jurisdictional lines, like ‘oh, we’re stopping here.’ It jumps into it, and so we have to be able to hand off” command of a fire response to another jurisdiction “or utilize the same resource.”
The seasonal firefighting gig often attracts college students, some of whom often end up fighting wildfires threatening their own communities.
Further training academies are scheduled in Rainier from June 20–28 and Deer Park from June 17–25.