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 officials 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 firefighters 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 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, said Loren Torgerson, DNR regional manager. 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 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 5-acre blaze. When residents made the third call, and a private contractor asked to bulldoze a fire line, he was told not to, 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 firefighting resources if the department can’t suppress a fire with its own personnel.
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