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Sue Lani Madsen: Wildfire – reading between the lines

Crews work to contain the Angel Springs Fire. (Spokane Valley Fire Department)
Crews work to contain the Angel Springs Fire. (Spokane Valley Fire Department)

There’s always more to the story.

Lincoln County Fire Districts 4 and 5 responded to the Angel Springs fire just days after the Fisher 231 fire. Many district volunteers already had been working fire duty plus their regular jobs for a week. So had the whole community.

When the newspaper says dryly that “fire crews received assistance from local farmers to establish containment lines through utilization of their equipment,” it means men driving through smoke with their tractors and discs just because it needed to be done. It means guys bulldozing fire lines, leaving their own homes vulnerable and putting their equipment at risk. It means knocking down unharvested crops.

It means fire crews composed of local men and women ranging in age from 18 to somewhere north of 60 operating on caffeine and adrenaline in the critical first 24 hours. Sandwiches from a battered cooler never tasted better. It means a row of trucks waiting on a ridge for the fire to burn to them while air support provides protection on the ground, three small scooper planes flying in formation. It means firefighters with cellphones recording video as a DC-10 dives over their heads barely above the power lines into the canyon, disappearing into thick smoke. It means dousing spot fires a half-mile or more from the front lines, burning embers spread by a persistent wind.

Basic wildfire coverage follows a data-driven template from the public information officer handbook. PIOs provide the location, evacuation levels, acres burned, equipment lists, agencies responding, number of firefighters and buildings lost. There is so much more happening behind the scenes.

Within the first hour, an ambulance had been dispatched to the command post for a potential allergic reaction to what turned into hundreds of stings. Local stores were drained of supplies of Benadryl. Some blamed the government for releasing bees to attack tree-damaging beetles.

“It’s an urban myth, no truth to it,” according to Stephanie Cates, director of marketing and communication at Spokane-based Sterling Industries. They’ve been making and shipping wasp traps as fast as they can to keep up with demand. “Western Yellowjacket wasps are the problem this year. And yellow jackets can’t be raised and released, just cannot be done.”

This particular species nests in the ground. Cates said the queens emerged from hibernation and started nesting two months earlier than usual. In hot weather, the occupancy of the nests doubles in two weeks, faster when it’s over 100 degrees. Western Yellowjackets are aggressive, attracted to colorful clothes and strong smells. The combination of dozers disrupting their nests and sweaty firefighters in yellow shirts resulted in the wasp apocalypse.

News reports quoting fire spokeswoman Catherine Koele saying “the only injuries associated with the firefighting efforts have been bee stings” doesn’t fully capture the image of firefighters slapping each other like participants in a Three Stooges slugfest.

Speculation on a combine as the cause started on the first day when dispatch put the location as Garry Rosman’s field, and was repeated in early news reports. Rosman’s combine has since been ruled out as a source of ignition by fire investigators. The initial fire attack obliterated direct evidence of the origin but a likely location is a locally known pullout at the top of Angel Springs Road used by residents of the nearby canyons seeking a cellphone signal.

“This Fire’s Heart is Made of Glass” in the Friday edition of The Spokesman-Review dug in behind the lines on the fire’s origin. All sorts of litter can cause problems. Anything that can focus a ray of light in dry brush is a potential fire start, especially in the current high temperature/low humidity conditions.

When local resources are tapped out, statewide mutual aid kicks in. The relationships haven’t always gone smoothly. At the Angel Springs fire, it worked. Walter Kowalski, spokesman for the incident management team in the area, described local farmers and firefighters as offering good ideas for containment in the complex topography of canyons and fields along the northern border of Lincoln County at the Spokane River. “That local knowledge is such an asset, the team is grateful for it,” he said.


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