Spokane Valley fire crews spent part of the day Wednesday brushing up on their wildland fire skills – removing low hanging tree limbs, cutting fire lines and setting back fires. At least, they tried to.
Everything was still wet from Tuesday’s soaking rains and when firefighters tried to set back fires near the crest of a slope the flames quickly fizzled. “It’s not quite ready to burn,” said assistant fire marshal Bill Clifford.
Other firefighters were more successful. A chain saw cut effortlessly through small tree branches while some firefighters used sharp-edge hand tools to cut small branches. Doing that kind of work ahead of a wildfire reduces the chance of fire getting up in the trees and helps keep the fire on the ground, said Clifford.
A firefighter from Spokane County Fire District 9 used a bulldozer to scrape an area down to bare dirt, creating a mound at one end. In a real wildfire the fire crews would use that as a spot to deploy their fire shelters if they needed to.
The department usually does wildland fire training once a year, said Capt. Jon Sprague. This year they used property on Lehman Road that belongs to one of their own firefighters. There’s a cleared 30-foot defensible space around the house and most of the hillside beneath the building had already been cleared of brush. The thinning and tree limbing the firefighters were doing as part of the training would really benefit his neighbors more, Sprague said. “You’re only as safe as your neighbor’s property,” he said.
Firefighter Jeff Fraser said he was happy to offer up his land, which is located just inside the boundaries of Fire District 9. “It reduces the fire danger for my property,” he said. “It makes my insurance agent happier.”
On Wednesday, Fraser was watching the training, but on Thursday he would gear up and join the ranks. “I’ll be up training on my own property,” he said.
The department usually only responds to half a dozen wildfires a year that are larger than a tenth of an acre, Sprague said. They are usually put out before they can spread too far. But fires can happen in a major way, such as the Valley View fire in 2008 that scorched more than 1,000 acres and burned more than a dozen homes. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Sprague said.
Crews from Spokane County Fire Districts 8 and 9 were invited to the training but at the last minute didn’t have enough firefighters on hand to spare to send to the training, Sprague said. Only one firefighter from District 9 was able to participate. “It’s amazing how hard it is to staff these kinds of things,” he said. “Budgets are tight.”