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Thursday, September 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Pacific NW

‘A coalescing of bad things’: As fires rage across the West, Washington firefighting resources are stretched

Tinder trucks from Lincoln County Fire District 5 drive over rocks and sagebrush to attack the 130,000-acre Whitney Fire that was threatening rancher Darrel Parsons’ critical winter grazing land southwest of Davenport.  (THOMAS CLOUSE/The Spokesman-Review)
Tinder trucks from Lincoln County Fire District 5 drive over rocks and sagebrush to attack the 130,000-acre Whitney Fire that was threatening rancher Darrel Parsons’ critical winter grazing land southwest of Davenport. (THOMAS CLOUSE/The Spokesman-Review)

Chuck Turley is doing his best to make do.

The wildfire division manager for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, Turley said he’s short the manpower and equipment he normally would have to tackle blazes that have burned through some 600,000 acres of land across the state, destroying homes, devastating almost the entire town of Malden, forcing countless evacuations and taking the life of a young child.

“We have fires out on the landscape right now, which, in a normal situation, we would probably have 500 or 600 people on, and those fires are having to try to make (containment) progress with 200 people and us not being able to provide them with any additional resources,” he said. “We’ve seen kind of a coalescing of bad things all at one point.”

The bad things that have converged include, Turley said, everything from climate change, which has prolonged the fire season, to COVID-19, which has kept some wildland firefighters from moving around to assist where the need is greatest.

The global pandemic isn’t the only thing intruding on the normal flow of firefighting resources around the country. There’s also the sheer number of wildfires burning throughout the West that are not only consuming fuels but also occupying the men, women and equipment who are working to put them out.

“One of the successes we have in a normal year is moving resources around the country,” he said. “But we’re at a point right now where there are no type 1 or type 2 teams available in the nation. Everyone that there is has been assigned to an incident somewhere.”

Fire crews are differentiated between three types, with type 1 crews, commonly known as hotshot crews, considered the most highly skilled and experienced. And even if they’re employed by a state agency, they can be moved within, and far beyond, the geographical region in which they’re based.

Carol Connolly, a public information specialist for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which helps assign resources within Oregon and Washington, agreed late last week that “resources are getting critically low.” But she said her center has been working to ensure those resources are “right-sized” and reallocated “to our higher priority fires within the region.”

As of Friday, Connolly said the Northwest region had about 7,000 firefighters and support personnel of about 28,000 assigned nationwide. Of those, 5,000 were in Oregon and about 2,000 were in Washington.

“We’re getting to a point where we’re at what resources we have,” Connolly said, “and we have to make it work. And that’s what our leaders are doing.”

Many of the decisions about where and how resources will be deployed around the United States are made in Boise, at the National Interagency Coordination Center. Every morning, fire managers from across the country meet to make decisions about how to shift available people and tools around, said Carrie Bilbao, a spokesperson for the center.

The country is divided into 10 geographical areas, and Washington and Oregon make up the Northwest region. North Idaho is in the Northern Rockies region with Montana and North Dakota. Each area is assigned a preparedness level from 1 through 5.

“Everyone starts at 1,” Bilbao said, which means “you can pretty much handle fire activity in your area.”

The U.S. is now at preparedness level 5, as is the Northwest. That means, “we’re kind of at critical levels,” Bilbao said.

And as regions move up in levels, Bilbao said, they begin “looking at other geographical areas for resources, which is where the fire center comes in,” helping to move people and materials from where they’re not needed to where they are required.

While that system works well in “a normal year,” said DNR’s Turley, it has been buckling under the weight of so much demand this year.

In one sign of how high that demand has been , while Washington is in the middle of what has already been its second-highest fire season on record and nearly half a million people have been evacuated as major fires encroach on cities in Oregon, the Northwest region was only the third-highest priority geographical area in the U.S. as of Friday.

The first two priorities were the northern and southern regions of California.

But it’s not only the Golden State that has been drawing resources. The Southwest, which Bilbao said “tends to taper off in July,” has instead been burning “continually.” Even places like Texas and Florida, she said, have been “pretty busy.”

And while Bilbao said the U.S. as a whole is “below our 10-year average for total acres burned, for total number of fires,” those numbers have “definitely gone up significantly since this weekend, since the past couple weeks.”

The high number of new fires ignited since the Labor Day weekend has been another factor in stretching resources, as crews around the West have been trying to get a handle on a large number of blazes at more or less the same time.

Turley said another complicating factor is the time of year.

In a normal year, he said, fire managers would be at the point where some crew members and equipment would be leaving their assignments for the year to go back to school or other commitments.

But climate change, he said, has extended the season.

“We’ve got a fire season that probably runs 60 to 90 days longer than traditionally,” he said. “And one of the changes we’re trying to make is we don’t really have a fire season any more. We have a fire year.”

While DNR has been working “where possible” to keep people on fire crews, not everyone can stay.

Another factor “complicating the situation,” he said, is that we “very seldom have a forest fire that’s in the middle of the woods.”

Instead, “almost every fire we have” is in what’s known as the wildland urban interface, Turley said. That means crews have to contend with not only houses and other structures but also “people and power lines and dams.”

“And all of those things that make firefighting much more complex and time consuming,” he said.

“When you put all of those things together,” he said, “you’ve just got a really badly stressed system right now. … This is a situation where we have to make some very hard decisions, because we know we don’t have the resources to provide everyone the resources they need.”

Turley said it’s hard to know the exact effect of resources being stretched so thin, while also acknowledging containment efforts have been complicated.

“There’s no doubt it adds to the complexity,” he said. “It means that rather than addressing multiple areas at once, you have to prioritize. So it certainly does extend the time it takes to suppress those fires, but every one’s different in terms of exactly how big that impact is.”

But Turley said the situation would have been worse without some recent additions to the DNR air fleet and staff, which have helped “beef up the system.”

“We actually had at a state level more resources than we normally have,” he noted.

Despite those additions, Turley’s boss at DNR, Commissioner Hilary Franz, made an impassioned plea this week for more.

“I shouldn’t have to be in the position to say, ‘I’m sorry, firefighters, you are putting your lives on the line for people you don’t even know, but this is all I’ve got for you,’ ” Franz said, standing near the rubble of Malden.

Even if an influx of new spending on firefighting does materialize, Turley said it’s “not reasonable” to “envision having enough firefighters and fire engines and aircraft sitting everywhere” to respond to every wildfire across the U.S.

That means the resources will always be moved around, to where they are most needed.

So while Washington has been stretched thin, Turley is hopeful resources battling blazes here will soon be reassigned.

“I truly hope the worst is behind us,” he said.

If things do continue to improve and containment levels increase, Turley said that DNR “should be able to think about providing some help in Oregon.”

“They have some really significant challenges left in front of them in Oregon,” he said, “more so than we have here in Washington.”

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