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Wildfire Preparedness in Methow Valley

by Marcy Stamper-Methow Valley News |

Despite continuing tension and emotion about the devastation caused by the Carlton Complex Fire, participants at a packed meeting in Brewster focused primarily on steps that can be taken to be better prepared for the upcoming fire season.

“We can’t change what happened this year, but we can change the future,” Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen) told the almost 200 people who turned out for the meeting with state and local officials on Monday (Jan. 5). Blake, chair of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, organized the meeting along with Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda).

Against a backdrop of grim predictions by fire-weather meteorologist Paul Werth of “a very-active fire season this year” and virtually no way for the remaining winter months to produce a normal snow pack in the state, the dozen officials stressed the need for improved communications and a better use of resources. Speakers came from agencies including the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the state Emergency Management Division, and local law enforcement and recovery organizations.

Many speakers said better communications is key — both in terms of technology and simply working together more cooperatively. Several panelists also appeared to have heeded calls for more local control in firefighting.

Representatives from DNR, which has come in for considerable criticism for its handling of the Carlton Complex, described proposals intended to improve fire response. Loren Torgerson, DNR’s Northeast Regional Manager, said the agency plans to review dispatch procedures in Okanogan County and share fire reports in a timely manner with all agencies. He said DNR will add personnel with local expertise as well as develop more agreements with local heavy-equipment contractors.

The emphasis on local resources struck a chord with county officials. Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell said he would like to see agencies use local resources effectively before they spend money on the state level.

“When I was a commissioner, we had a resolution to hire local. When they come from the west side, it’s too late,” said Dave Schulz, a former Okanogan County commissioner.

Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said DNR is asking the Legislature for additional funds for forest-health projects and to help homeowners create defensible space. “Fires are going to occur. But the whole effort around forest health is to keep the fire on the ground and from getting into the crowns of the trees,” said Goldmark.

DNR also plans to base additional helicopters and aircraft in Omak, said Torgerson. He said they would increase training for firefighters and acquaint firefighters from western Washington with conditions in this area.

Reasons for delays

Many speakers — both on the panel and in the audience — complained about delays caused by confusion about who should attack a fire.

Bruce Holloway, the fire chief for Spokane County Fire District 3, who spent 30 days on the Carlton Complex Fire, said he saw a need for improved communications between state, federal and local agencies. Holloway said Spokane had significantly improved interagency cooperation over the past two decades.

Carleen Anders, a veteran firefighter and smokejumper and the executive director of the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group, also pointed to problems with communication during the fire, which she fought with Okanogan County Fire District 15. She said communications between firefighters and emergency personnel had been better 20 years ago.

Okanogan County is working on enhanced communications systems, including a reverse 911 system that could notify people in an emergency, said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.

Nevertheless, Rogers urged people not to wait for an evacuation notice. “These evacuation notices — levels 1, 2 and 3 — it’s a waste of time in this county, and it’s going to get somebody killed — I’m not kidding,” said Rogers, who said deputies did not have time to cover long stretches of road to deliver repeated notifications during the quick-moving Carlton Complex Fire.

Frustration, anger

Despite the forward-looking tone of many of the comments, there was still considerable emotion from people who deplored the way the fire had been fought. “I heard time and time again at the command centers that they were managing the fires,” said County Commissioner Campbell. “I don’t want them managed; I want them put out.”

Warren Smothers, who lost his home in the fire, complained that people had been threatened with arrest when they wanted to enter state land to put out a fire. He lobbied for a “Good Samaritan” act that would cover people who want to help put out fires.

Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro, who was a wildland firefighter for 50 years and also worked as a smokejumper, complained about bureaucratic delays, with smokejumpers waiting in the plane for a fax to authorize action. “You’ve got the crown jewel of initial attack [the North Cascades Smokejumper Base] sitting in Winthrop, Washington. You can have boots on the ground, chutes in the air, within one hour on any fire in the state of Washington — but now they have to sit in the airplane waiting for a fax,” he said.

DeTro offered his own assessment of what hobbles firefighters. “Gentlemen, separate your ego from the business of firefighting,” he said.

Attorney Alex Thomason, who represents 150 property owners filing damage claims against DNR, urged agencies to adopt different incentives so that they are rewarded for putting out more fires more quickly. Thomason claimed that today many see large fires as a source of revenue.