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Prepping for wildfire season

OLYMPIA — With Washington facing another difficult fire season, Gov. Jay Inslee and Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark held their annual exercise that emphasizes fire preparedness and safety.

They walked a mile in under 16 minutes, and got into a practice fire shelter in under 30 seconds. It is, Department of Natural Resources Wildfire Division Manager Bob Johnson said, the least strenuous of all fire fighter tests. The most involves carrying a 45 pound pack for three miles in under 45 minutes.

But it gave Inslee and Goldmark a chance to highlight the prospects of another devastating fire season after 2014, which saw the largest wildfire in state history at the Carlton Complex fire in Central Washington. The state has already had more than 200 fires this year, Goldmark said and with warmer and drier weather in May and June, the prospects for fires on the West Side have increased.

"I'm concerned this is heralding in what could be another very destructive fire season," Goldmark said.

Inslee said the state is urging residents in forested areas to create "defensible space" around their homes and building, by removing branches, dead trees, dried grass and other combustible materials in the area.

"We have to understand, this is something that is going to be with us for decades," he said. "Washington's going to have to inure itself and become prepared for more forest fires." 

Increased money for fighting fires is being proposed for the coming two-year budget cycle, although the Legislature is into its second special session on overall budget talks. Those talks haven't come down to a point where a specific amount of money for firefighting can be determined, Inslee said. 

"I'm not totally confident of anything in the budget yet because it hasn't been done," Inslee said.

WALeg Day 18: DNR response to Central WA fires blasted

OLYMPIA – Government agencies failed to react fast enough to smaller fires that grew last July into the largest wildfire in state history, Central Washington residents told legislators Thursday.

While Department of Natural Resources supervisors defended their efforts to battle the Carlton Complex in hot, dry, windy conditions, Okanogan County officials and residents accused them of being disorganized and ill-prepared. They’re worried about a repeat this summer, when weather conditions are expected to be similar.

“They failed us,” Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. “We don’t feel we’re going to be protected this summer.”

Local smoke jumpers were sent to Oregon instead of fighting fires that were close at hand, Campbell and other Okanogan County residents said. Private landowners had trouble getting permission to cross state land to set up fire breaks. Crews were pulled off of fires before they were out.

Rep. Joel Kretz, a Wauconda Republican who spent time in the fire zone, said fire fighters performed admirably when they were dispatched, but the command structure was complicated and decision-making slow. While they waited for orders, employees of private landowners like Gebbers Farms were using orchard sprayers in an effort to keep the fire at bay, he said. Without the work of the landowners, Brewster might have burned.

 “People a long, long way from the fire were making decisions,” Kretz said. “We’ve drifted into ‘We’re going to manage the fire’ instead of ‘We’re going to put it out.’”

Mary Verner, a former Spokane mayor who serves as the department’s deputy supervisor for resource protection and administration, described some of the conditions that led to what became the worst fire in state history in terms of acreage burned. There were more than 2,400 lightning strikes in a 12-hour period on July 14, the day the fires started. The DNR responded to 45 fires that day, and by July 16 they were fighting 86.

Crews made good progress the first day, but gusty winds sent sparks outside the burning areas the next day, Loren Torgerson, DNR regional manager, said. With record heat and low humidity, the vegetation was “dry as a match stick”, he said, and any spark could start a fire. On July 17 and 18 the all aircraft had to be grounded because of weather. Four fires burned together to form the Carlton Complex, which eventually scorched almost 387,000 acres of timber and grasslands.

But the DNR was alerted to one of those blazes, the French Creek fire, when it was just a few trees burning, said Jon Wyss of the Okanogan Farm Bureau. No one came then, or when it was reported as a small five-acre blaze. When residents made the third call and a private contractor asked to bulldoze a fire line, he was told no, Wyss said.

Torgeson said the department did use some private landowners, but he knows “others would have liked to.” The department is concerned for the safety of firefighters on the ground, and planes and helicopters in the air.

“We need to have good, coordinated communication,” Torgeson said.

Verner said the department is listening to central Washington residents, improving its training, fixing communication deficiencies and prepositioning resources to fight future fires. It’s also helping landowners prepare their property to better withstand fires. Kretz said it would be better if the department came up with its own solutions.

“You don’t want us to, trust me,” he told Verner.

Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said several fire-related bills will get hearings in the coming weeks, including one that would protect a landowner from penalties or civil liabilities for actions taken to fight “imminent danger” from a fire. Another would require the state to use the closest fire fighting resources if the department can’t suppress a fire with its own personnel.

DNR to explore halt to timber harvests near slides

OLYMPIA — The agency that manages state forest lands will ask whether it's legal to declare a moratorium on timber harvests near landslide areas.

The Forest Practices Board, which sets rules for harvesting timber, will also review those rules "with a particular eye to public safety" around slides and the areas where water is absorbed into the ground and recharges the aquifer below. . . 

To read the rest of this item, or to comment, click here to continue inside the blog.

Today’s fun video: Sasquatches need park passes?


OLYMPIA — The state Department of Natural Resources apparently thinks Sasquatches, like everyone else, need a Discover Pass if they want to spend any time in state parks or state lands.

The DNR is kicking out a whole line of public service announcements trying to boost sales of the passes, which so far have been underperforming revenue estimates. The spots feature a Sasquatch family. Possibly the worst-acting Sasquatch family in the history of movies, television or Internet videos. The other folks in the videos aren't likely to be starring in a Hollywood blockbuster any time soon, either.

From the videos we learn that Sasquatches take hula-hoops when they go camping, cram lots of junk into their car, like to ride dirt bikes and have questionable fashion sense. But they buy a Discover Pass, even if means going back to town after they get to the park and realize they forgot to get one before they home.

The real question: Where did the Sasquatch get the $35 to buy the Discover Pass?

Summer burn ban on all DNR land

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced there will be a statewide burn ban on all DNR-protected lands through September 30, 2013. The burn ban will apply to all forestlands in Washington under DNR fire protection, which does not include federally owned lands.

Each year, DNR strives to keep all wildfires under 10 acres. Already this year as of July 1st, DNR has had 57 wildfire starts simply from escaped outdoor burn piles, which have burned approximately 202 acres.

“The threat of wildfires from escaped outdoor burning is highest during the hot and dry days of summer,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. “Wildfires are serious threats to public safety, private property, and wildlife habitat. We must take prudent steps to prevent wildfires and minimize the large expenditures of public resources spent to fight them.”

Preparing for fire season

Inslee deploys a fire shelter.

OLYMPIA — Jay Inslee completed one of the annual spring rituals for a Washington governor this morning: passing the test for minimum wildfire training in the advance of the state's fire season.

To do this, one must walk a mile in no more than 16 minutes. He managed it in just over 13, strolling with Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark staff and assorted media, on a course laid out by the Department of Natural Resources at Capitol Lake. Possibly most impressive, he did it in his dress shoes.

One must also demonstrate the ability to unpack and crawl into a fire shelter in 26 seconds. He had a few seconds to spare.

"I'm trying to get a budget through the Washington Legislature. Geting into a fire shelter is nothing," he told reporters afterwards.

This doesn't qualify one to fight wildfires in the forests or ranges. That's a much tougher test. This is the minimum for going up to the fire line.

Summers are getting warmer, drier and longer with each passing decade, and tree kills by beetles more frequent, Inslee said, which means fire seasons in most years are getting more longer and more intense.

One might assume that if the governor showed up at a wildfire, they'd let him go to the fireline if he wanted, but governors usually take the test to show support for the DNR.

Verner lands new job

Former Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has landed a new job at the Department of Natural Resources.

She will start next month as the deputy supervisor of resource protection and administration, said department spokesman Matthew Randazzo. That is the lead position over the resource protection division, he said.

Soon after leaving office at the end of 2011, Verner was named the CEO of Spokane Tribal Enterprises.

DNR map shows fire risks

If you're headed out for a camping trip in Washington this weekend, and wondering about the fire danger levels in the place where you'll be pitching a tent, the state Department of Natural Resources can tell you with the click of a mouse button.

It has an interactive Burn Risk map, which lists the fire danger in each of Washington's 39 counties.Click on the county where your camp site will be, and it will tell you, low to very high, the fire danger rating.

 Although to be fair, there's a burn ban throughout the state until Sept. 30, so where ever you go, there are going to be restrictions against piling up logs an a flat piece of ground and holding a gigantic bonfire. Camp fires, where allowed, have to be in fire pits, and they'd prefer if you'd cook on stoves, if it's all the same to you.

Fire season has begun

Okay, everybody, based on the scanner traffic today people don't seem to understand that it's fire season now. We've had several days of very warm weather and wind and any firefighter will tell you that those conditions dry out grasses and other fuels very quickly. I've heard brush fire calls all over Spokane County today. Remember that burn bans are now in place on all Department of Natural Resources lands and residents in Spokane Valley are also banned from lighting anything other than an approved camp fire. Everyone be careful out there and remember not to toss burning cigarettes out your car window.

Fire danger light this season

Gov. Chris Gregoire opens a fire shelter during the annual training and test required for being on site at a wildfire or forest fire.

OLYMPIA — With snow still on the mountains and plenty of rain this spring in the lowlands, the danger of wildfires is light, at least for the first part of summer.

That's the word from state officials today as Gov. Chris Gregoire, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste and others took their annual Department of Natural Resources fitness and fire shelter test at Chehalis Western Trail at Woodard Bay.

The test isn't too strenuous: Cover a mile on foot in 15 minutes, which is a brisk walk, or as Gregoire complained at one point "barely a saunter." Then open a portable fire shelter, get in it and lie on the ground in the right direction for an approaching fire within 25 seconds. (Tip: The right direction is feet toward the fire, under the theory that your head is the more valuable thing to protect.)

The training is necessary for going to the fire line should a wildfire break out. Even the governor and the WSP chief have to qualify.

Everybody passed, although it's probably not something that will be needed in most of the state this summer, except maybe in parts of the Columbia Basin.

Goldmark v. McKenna and the Methow power line

OLYMPIA – The fight over a proposed power line in the Methow Valley pits Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark against Attorney General Rob McKenna.

Goldmark gets a chance later this year to persuade the Supreme Court to order McKenna to continue representing him in an ongoing legal battle over the proposed route for an Okanogan Public Utilities District transmission line.

McKenna says the legal work to appeal a case the state lost in May isn’t worth the time and energy it would take. Goldmark says McKenna’s office has the duty as the state’s legal counsel to continue the fight.

With each accusing the other of politicizing the case, the Supreme Court this week ordered attorneys for Goldmark and McKenna to file legal briefs this fall and to argue in November whether they should issue McKenna a writ of mandamus – an order from a court to a government official to do something because it’s his or her legal duty.

To read more on the dispute, click here to go inside the blog

Goldmark takes fight with McKenna to Supremes

OLYMPIA – The fight between the state’s top land manager and its top attorney is headed to its top court.

Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said Monday he will ask the state Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, essentially ordering Attorney General Rob McKenna to appeal an eminent domain ruling by the Okanogan County Superior Court.