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

Spokane agencies on edge as organization sets national fire-risk level at 4 out of 5 following drought, heat waves

Spokane firefighter Dave Buechler sprays a hot spot while battling burning brush near Sunset Highway and Grove Road on Aug. 14, 2020. This year, Eastern Washington suffered a drier-than-usual spring, followed by a worse-than-usual drought, says Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Sydney Brown The Spokesman-Review

A national organization has set its fire-risk level for the country at 4 out of 5, prompting fire officials in Eastern Washington to warn the community about the risks of a hot, dry and fiery summer.

Candice Stevenson, public information officer at the National Interagency Fire Center, said the fire preparedness levels guide where the national organization sends its resources, and how much will go to each region.

The NIFC works on a national scale to ensure high-risk areas have enough nearby firefighting tools, she said. A Level 4 means the risk is high enough that the agency needs to mobilize more resources.

“It’s an internal indication for us to know that there will be a higher amount of resources that need to be distributed,” Stevenson said. “There’s a heightened chance of fire potential.”

Fire risk is determined by a number of factors, said Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. Eastern Washington suffered a drier-than-usual springtime followed by a worse-than-usual drought, making a dangerous cocktail of risk factors, Schaeffer said.

The fires Spokane Fire Department responded to in June so far have mostly been human-caused, Schaeffer said.

Stevenson said 87% of all fires are caused by human activity.

“It’s not usually intentional,” Stevenson said. “It’s just things that happen like a campfire or a spark from using equipment. Especially when you have high winds, that can be a bigger problem because the winds are going to blow that ember or spark even further.”

Dustin Flock, Spokane County Fire District No. 3 division chief of fire prevention, said the conditions in the past year also led to drier timber, grass and sagebrush.

With high winds and low humidity, these are especially dangerous conditions because firefighters have more trouble controlling fires that climb trees, Flock said.

“That’s when start having to use aircraft,” Flock said.

The NIFC provides resources on a national level to agencies, but Flock said smaller jurisdictions rely also on the state. Spokane County Fire District No. 3 will likely get any of its necessary firefighting aircraft from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Flock said.

Schaeffer said Spokane County is an “island” of sorts when it comes to fighting fires, so many districts in the area will share resources. That’s why, when a fire in North Spokane caused by a cigarette lighter took half of the city’s fire resources Saturday, surrounding agencies also helped.

“We work as one system … But we can only do that so many times,” Schaeffer said. “Two, three large fires can really have a disastrous impact on the availability of resources.”

Flock said people in the community can help prevent fires by first removing dry debris or kindling from around their yards.

In more rural areas where houses are located near forestry, Flock said people should consider moving any firewood from the side of their house. He said people should clean under their porches and in any rain gutters for pine needles and leaves.

Decluttered yards will help firefighters save the house if the fire reaches the property, Flock said.

Stevenson said those who want to travel within the state will need to look at restrictions, as they often vary by county.

In Spokane County, which has a moderate-to-high risk level, according to a burn restrictions map from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, some restrictions will apply.

Permit and rule burns are banned, and some campfires are allowed in designated areas, according to the map. These same restrictions apply to Lincoln and Whitman counties.

National forests have prohibited all campfires, Stevenson said, so people will need to keep that in mind if traveling to a national park or forest.

Flock said southeastern Washington gets drier than Spokane, so the fire risk is greater.

According to the burn restrictions map, Walla Walla, Yakima, Benton and Klickitat counties also have banned permit and rule fires, most campfires, and the use of fireworks.