While Department of Natural Resources supervisors defended their efforts to battle the Carlton Complex in hot, dry, windy conditions,
“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
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
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
“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.