It could have been Hartline. Or Fairfield. Or Starbuck. Not the coffee chain, but the tiny town of less than 150 people in Columbia County. Rural first response is thin in the best of times and stretched beyond capacity in hellacious winds. What happened to Malden could have happened to any of the hundreds of obscure small towns scattered across Eastern and Central Washington.
It almost happened to Edwall last week, except for a timely pause in the prevailing winds. A small spark in the bowels of a combine caught wheat stubble on fire just upwind of town. A brief lull in what had been an ordinary 7-to-10 mph wind gave the harvest crew the opening they needed to attack aggressively with fire extinguishers and shovels, literally stomping out the flames before they reached standing wheat. A half-mile beyond was the edge of town. Warehouses. Homes. Another block to the library and fire station, one more block to the church and school.
We were two minutes away from being Malden.
If the winds hadn’t paused to catch a breath, if the harvest crew hadn’t been alert and aggressive, the fire would have won.
“Initial attack is everything,” said Rep. Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake). Dent has been working on rural and wildland fire prevention and suppression issues since he was first elected in 2015. He’ll be running the Rangeland Fire Protection Association bill again this year, allowing neighbors in sparsely populated areas outside fire districts to proactively organize to protect themselves.
Hilary Franz, Commission of Public Lands, also emphasized initial attack and self-sufficiency at both a state and local level as she toured Malden on Wednesday. When there are simultaneous demands for resources across the region and the nation we “need to be ready to take care of ourselves,” said Franz. That means investing in local fire districts “to build the resources within these communities.”
But it’s not just about more shiny red trucks and better communications. It’s about more people.
The majority of Washington is protected by volunteer first responders, both men and women. Best practice in an urban department is for the first fire engine to arrive on scene within four minutes with a minimum crew of four. In a volunteer department, it will usually take four minutes or more for the first two firefighters to arrive at the station unless the timing is miraculous.
The town of Sprague had a close call on Labor Day when a fire threatened fuel storage tanks and homes on the east edge of town. Harvest was done and a lot of the guys were at their shops working on equipment and could respond quickly instead of driving in from a field, according to Arleta Hoffman, a volunteer with the Lincoln County Fire District No. 1. Hoffman said Assistant Chief Travis McKay brought his own dozer to dig a fire line or the fire would have jumped Hwy 23 and they’d have had to let it go to focus on the houses. Timing is everything.
Fires and emergencies don’t only happen on weekends and holidays. Employers can be one of the biggest barriers to volunteering. State and federal agencies have generally blocked employees from responding during work hours as have some privately owned businesses unwilling to deal with the disruption. Self-employed farmers and ranchers are traditionally a major pool for recruiting volunteers, but as on-farm employment numbers shrink that pool is getting smaller while the numbers of commuters working outside rural areas is increasing.
There’s an unexpected benefit of the forced switch to work from home. More working age adults in the ring around metropolitan Spokane are working at home. State employees and at-home professionals of all types could respond without having to drive a tractor to get to a pickup to get to the station.
That’s if they volunteer and employers support them. Newly rural residents may not realize how much they’re needed to augment and replace an aging workforce. The NFPA reports the percentage of volunteers over 60 is increasing nationally while the numbers for 30 to 49 year olds are decreasing, an “aging trend that has been happening for years among the population of firefighters in small communities.”
As we focus on first responders in the aftermath of the 2020 Labor Day firestorms and the anniversary of the 2001 September 11 attacks, think about volunteering. If you are an employer, support someone who does by giving them the time and flexibility to train and respond. Building community resources just might need you.
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