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Private firefighters singed by slow season

Officially, at least, fire season doesn’t end until the middle of October.

But even the most superstitious of firefighters are now saying the season that wasn’t seems to be kaput.

“This is one of the earliest we’ve seen the fire season fizzle in a long time,” said Steve Harris, fire prevention coordinator with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “I’ve never been able to call one so early.”

Just 60 acres burned on national forests in North Idaho. Less than a quarter of the typical acreage burned in northeast Washington. And the rain continues to fall on increasingly soggy Inland Northwest forests.

This is good news for taxpayers, asthmatics and rural homeowners, but the largely smoke-free summer has stung the region’s small army of private firefighting contractors. Many of the businesses have sprung up in recent years in response to a succession of record-setting fire years.

“It’s been a feast for the last few years,” said Brent Lewis, president of the Washington Contract Firefighters Association. “This is a herd-thinning season. A lot of people now are going to go out of business.”

Washington is home to 202 privately owned firefighting bulldozers, water tankers and fire engines, said Lewis, of Chattaroy. A heavy-duty pickup truck equipped for firefighting work, for instance, costs upward of $70,000, but can earn $1,800 per day on the fire lines, Lewis said. In each of the four previous seasons, many contractors brought in big bucks working 30 days or more on fires across the West. The money was good enough to lure in private firefighters from as far away as Florida and Massachusetts, he said.

This year, their phones were silent, leaving the private firefighters feeling like proverbial Maytag washing machine repairmen.

“There was virtually nothing,” said Edward Wright, who owns Targhee Wildfire, of Idaho Falls. “We didn’t have a single dispatch. It was a bust. It’s going to hurt. It’s flat-out going to hurt.”

Wright, a board member of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, was one of the luckier ones. He saved money from the fat years and found work this season in central Washington, which was one of the few hotspots in the lower 48 states. Nearly 50,000 acres burned in the Lake Chelan area.

Like other private contractors, Wright is hoping to diversify his capital-intensive operation by conducting forest thinning and wildfire prevention work. He also shared the widespread reluctance among private firefighting contractors to complain publicly about the wet season.

“It’s not good for the business, but it’s good for the public,” Wright explained.

David Pemberton, owner of Silver Tip Forestry in Colville, said he “poured everything” into his small firefighting contracting business. He had a handful of calls for fires in the Republic area, but not enough to pay the bills.

“It’s going to be hard to get through the winter,” Pemberton said.

Early on, Pemberton had every reason to be hopeful. After an unusually early spring, officials were predicting another long, fiery summer. July was hotter and drier than normal. And there was no lack of lightning, but many of the storms were accompanied by rain, said Harris, with the DNR.

In the five counties of northeast Washington, 370 wildfires were started, but only 14 grew to larger than 10 acres, Harris said. The weather helped, as did extra helicopters ordered by the agency. Even though aircraft are expensive, they helped save money, Harris said. “We’re going to turn in a bill to the Legislature that’s a lot smaller than average.”

A contingent of light airtankers from Canada also was on-hand in North Idaho. The fliers returned home at the end of August, said Bob Burke, fire and fuels program manager for the Department of Lands. “We got off pretty easy,” he said.

About 1,900 acres of state and private land burned in Idaho this season, 800 of which was a Valentine’s Day grass fire near Grangeville, Burke said. In a typical year, about 8,900 acres of state and private land burns in Idaho.

Many of the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighters have been released for the season and have returned to college, said Mark Grant, fire management officer for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. Last year, the agency fought a 3,600-acre wildfire near Bonners Ferry, Idaho. This season, the biggest fire on the Panhandle was a 30-acre blaze near Coddington Peak in the St. Joe River area.

A total of 60 acres has burned on the 2.5 million-acre forest. “That’s nothing,” Grant said. “That’s more like a tenth of normal.”

About 2 1/2 inches of rain have fallen at the Spokane airport in August and September, which is an inch more than usual, according to the National Weather Service. The agency does not keep track of precipitation in the Coeur d’Alene area, but unofficial readings from a rain gauge near Hayden Lake show more than 6 inches have fallen in the last month.

Grant is wary of calling the season over – the 1991 firestorm happened in the middle of October – but he admits the chances are slim for a big fire. Dew now is forming on windshields in the morning. Rays from the late summer sun barely penetrate to the forest floor. Moisture levels in the largest fallen trees in the forest are now nearing 20 percent in some areas – anything above 12 percent makes it hard for large fires to spread.

“I’m not going to say it’s over until late October,” Grant said. “You could always get some fluke weather event, but the chances are very low.”