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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Local firefighters, forest officials tout wildfire preparedness but say more funding needed

McMorris Rodgers (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The region’s firefighters are better organized to handle the threat of devastating wildfires after last year’s record-breaking blazes, but still need federal help in recruiting volunteers and managing forestland, local officials told Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on Friday.

Representatives from firefighting agencies in Spokane, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, as well as the Colville National Forest, the Confederated Colville Tribes and the Washington Department of Natural Resources said they spent the winter holding training sessions throughout the region and recruited hundreds of people to respond when the fire season begins.

“Through these venues, we’ve trained 1,596 interagency firefighters. That involved over 57 agencies in the state at the local, state and federal levels,” said John Kaikkonen, a deputy division manager with the Department of Natural Resources.

That training has occurred in years past. But this year, officials focused on centralizing the training required to receive a so-called “red card” that demonstrates a would-be firefighter’s preparedness, Kaikkonen said. Applicants wishing to receive a red card must complete 32 hours of specialized training.

In addition to training, DNR held disaster simulations in areas with high fire risk to prepare first responders, elected officials and others for the herculean task of dealing with large, complex blazes.

“We had really, really good participation this year,” said Steve Harris, of DNR’s northeast regional office. “We had almost standing-room-only in Omak. We have everybody’s attention now.”

In August, a lightning-caused blaze was fed by high winds and produced the Okanogan Complex fire, which burned well into September and eventually consumed more than 133,000 acres. That fire was among dozens throughout the state that ended up burning more than a million acres and claimed the lives of Rick Wheeler, Andrew Zajac and Tom Zbyszewski, three U.S. Forest Service firefighters battling a blaze near Twisp.

The Friday roundtable was a follow-up to a similar meeting held in October, where many of the same representatives said Congress needed to start acting immediately ahead of another likely massive fire season in 2016. But the nationwide outlook isn’t as severe this summer as in 2015, the U.S. Forest Service announced in April.

The Colville National Forest suffered its most devastating fire season since 1929, said Tim Sampson, fire management officer for the forest. Clearing and restoration efforts have been underway since September, leading to around 15 million board feet of timber sold, said Rodney Smoldon, the U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the Colville National Forest.

While coordination among agencies has led to better preparedness, Smoldon said, he told McMorris Rodgers that Congress should be focusing on allocating money for forest management.

“It’s frustrating, as the manager of 1.1 million acres, to be spending our money suppressing fires rather than digging out in front of it, and tactically managing the forest to change fire behavior,” Smoldon said, adding that it feels as though agencies are being “handcuffed” and must simply “prepare for the worst.”

The most recent appropriations bills in Congress increased wildfire suppression budgets by $670 million this year compared to 2015, following a summer that set both statewide and national records for the number of acres burned. McMorris Rodgers has pushed a bill called the Resilient Federal Forests Act, which she says will speed up clearing and reforestation efforts after catastrophic fires. But the bill has been panned by the White House and several conservation groups for limiting the public’s ability to raise ecological concerns during a review process, and the Senate has not voted on the legislation.

Mike Bucy, chief of Stevens County Fire District 1, urged the congresswoman to explore legislation that would make it easier for firefighters to volunteer.

“They want to go out for two weeks, and take two weeks off from their jobs, they can do it without taking family vacation times, or out of their pockets,” Bucy said.

Officials also said rural areas need access to better broadband communication networks, and incident teams can do a better job of sharing reliable information with local governments and the public.

“I had a similar roundtable discussion in Republic last year. I remember them making that point very clear to me, and that Facebook had become one of the best ways to get information out last summer,” said McMorris Rodgers.

The congresswoman said after the meeting, which was held Friday at the Greater Spokane Inc. headquarters in downtown Spokane, that she was encouraged by the efforts of local officials to prepare themselves for this fire season.

“It definitely sounded like they had learned some lessons from last year,” she said.