Reports suggest reform in fighting Wash. wildfires

2017-01-27 Ashley Bach

New reports on the 2015 Twisp River Fire that killed three U.S. Forest Service firefighters suggest several lessons for battling fires in the future. 

From the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

An after-action review of a fatal incident is normal, but this time the Forest Service teamed up with the Washington state Department of Natural Resources for a learning review. The learning review is a relatively new process, and the reports issued last month are the first completed with two agencies.

High temperatures and drought created an explosive fire season in Washington in 2015, drawing firefighting crews from around the region and from other states. Crews that responded to the Twisp River fire that started on Aug. 19, 2015, included local fire districts, the Forest Service, the Department of Natural Resources and firefighters called in from Colorado to help with Washington’s fires.

“One of the goals of a learning review is to focus on just the particulars of what happened and what we can learn from it,” Forest Service spokesman John Haynes said. “It’s not a process designed to find who is responsible or to point blame.”

One of the lessons: firefighters may no longer try to save homes that are on dead end streets. In the Twisp River Fire, the firefighters who were killed were working to save homes on a dead-end road, which meant they didn't have easy means of escape when the fire rushed in.

Former state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said in a December interview that Washington needs to better prepare communities and landscapes for fire.

He added, “There are some areas that are just too dangerous to go into when there is fire in the landscape. If there’s only one way out – we saw the consequences.”

The reports from state and federal agencies had several other suggested reforms, according to the Spokesman-Review.

Besides urging a possible rethinking of the practice of trying to save homes on dead-end roads, the learning review recommended more training and having weather experts on-site.

Firefighter Daniel Lyon, who survived with severe burns, was one of those calling for more training. He was in his first fire season and said he didn’t feel prepared for the job. He completed three online courses and a one-day “live fire” exercise before he began work.

Weather experts had predicted a shift in the wind the afternoon of the Twisp River fire, but the incident commanders were not aware of that fact, the report states.

Firefighters also reported radio problems. They weren’t all on the same frequency, and people on the ground had difficulty communicating with tankers and helicopters in the air dropping water and fire retardant. When the wind shifted, the radio was so overloaded with traffic that there was difficulty in communicating the danger to crews.

Changes in how fires are fought means there will be a need for more firefighters, Goldmark said. “We need to invest more in our training and we need to invest more in our staff,” he said. “That all takes dollars. As we know, the state budget is crimped; the federal dollars are crimped.”