Learning from the Washington wildfire season


While the wildfires in Washington still burn, wetter and cooler weather has slowed them down and firefighters are finally getting an edge up. This is an appropriate time to assess some of the lessons going forward.

One of the most striking things was how shorthanded many of the fire crews were. This was a record wildfire season in Washington, to be sure, but the lack of manpower is important to note, especially when State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said the state is still woefully underfunded for fighting the fires and for wildfire prevention.

A recent Los Angeles Times story paints a harrowing picture of the choices that fire officials in Stevens County in northeast Washington were forced to make as the flames closed in.

For almost 24 hours, (Stevens County Fire District 2 Chief Rick) Anderson and 11 other firefighters fought the blaze alone, with pickup trucks carrying 300-gallon water tanks.

It was a costly and deeply personal battle waged on home turf, with two firefighters battling to save their parents’ home, another defending his in-laws’ house, and another losing 120 acres of his timber to the flames.

…Never before in Anderson’s four-decade career had he been forced to make such a choice.

“There was a group of homes we had to walk away from,” he said. “I’ve never had to make that decision: ‘We’re not going to do anything.’

“It isn’t like the newscasts,” he said. “It’s the Smith household. It’s the Jones household…. The houses all have names on them.”

Many homes had to be abandoned and, in all, 17 had burned as of Wednesday.

It was a similar situation for West Valley (Yakima) fire Chief Dave Leitch, fighting the Cougar Creek Fire in central Washington. From a Yakima Herald-Republic story this week:

“Any normal fire season, we would have had twice the resources,” Leitch said. “We should have had at least 900 firefighters. But when everything else started burning a few days later, our stuff stopped coming and I had to fight to keep what we had.”

After 20 days on the fire, Leitch’s 50-person team of managers and logistics staff was replaced Aug. 31 by a team from Southern California. After a few days of rest, Leitch and the rest of Washington’s Team 5 will be back on call in the complex national system of wildfire coordination that controls which resources go where when fires rage across the West.

Washington ranchers, meanwhile, have seen many of their livestock die in the fires, and they told Capital Press that the failure is with a lack of forest management:

At the Haeberle Ranch, between the towns of Okanogan and Conconully in north central Washington state, Rod Haeberle, 66, and his daughter, Nicole Kuchenbuch, 36, and son-in-law Casey Kuchenbuch, 36, voiced concerns about “mismanagement” of government lands. Their comments mirrored those of ranchers in southeastern Oregon after the massive 582,313-acre Long Draw and 430,000-acre Holloway fires of 2012.

“These fires are not a surprise for those of us who live and work in Eastern Washington. We’ve been warning about the potential disastrous effects of federal and state management policies for many years,” said Nicole Kuchenbuch.

Agencies have allowed forests to become overgrown and unhealthy, consumed by underbrush that’s fuel for fires, she said.

“Agencies tell us to keep our cattle out of creek bottoms but there’s no grass elsewhere because they don’t thin forests,” she said.

Sod was so thick in Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife grasslands from 20 years of no cattle grazing that it took bulldozers two and three passes to cut fire lines to soil, she said, adding that sod can be a fuel that’s almost impossible for firefighters to extinguish.

While ranchers have lobbied for change, nothing happens because of the political strength of environmentalists and the Endangered Species Act, the Kuchenbuchs said.

Haeberle calls them “asphalites — born on asphalt, raised on concrete and living in a world of plastic flowers.”

Sandra Kaiser, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, said the agency is fully on board with thinning forests to decrease their fire fuel load.

“Last biennium we requested $20 million from the Legislature and got $10 million for forest health treatment and thinning,” she said. “It’s essential to preparing landscape to resist fire. It’s work that needs to be done.”