Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: COVID policies one wrench in firefighting mobilization efforts

It was a Wednesday in October. Firestorm ’91 swept across Northeast Washington and into Idaho, overwhelming local resources in the face of devilishly persistent winds until late Friday. When meteorologists predicted another weather front would blow through on Monday, the first cross-state mobilization of firefighting resources from outside the Inland Northwest brought trucks from Western Washington to stage at the Spokane County Fairgrounds to back up beleaguered local crews.

And in 1992, the first legislation was passed creating the framework for what is now called “state mobe” by the fire services. Thirty years later, communities and fire districts have grown to rely on it. Some of those districts are frustrated and concerned by what they see as rules limiting their participation and potentially endangering public safety.

Are Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates to blame for fewer resources available for state mobilization for major fires? Yes and no.

The problem predates 2020, said Fire Chief Mike Bucy of Stevens County Fire District No. 1. He said his district’s volunteers and paid staff are all fully vaccinated, but an increasing operational reliance on lengthier deployments is a problem.

“What used to be three- or four-day events have now become eight- to 14-day events,” Bucy said.

He can’t send anyone from his small paid staff and maintain coverage in his district, and volunteers can’t take that much time away from their day jobs. Career departments can be compensated for the cost of backfilling stations and ask firefighters to take extra shifts, but many like the Spokane Fire Department are already heavily relying on overtime to cover increased demand and a decreased workforce.

Others blame Inslee’s vaccine mandates. In 2021, some rural fire districts reacted to requests from the state for their COVID vaccination policy by ignoring it, literally, simply not returning the paperwork. Since fire district volunteers are covered for on the job injuries under the Board for Volunteer Firefighters instead of under L&I, Inslee had no easy way to sanction them.

Inslee issued a new policy by proclamation on May 20, which at first seemed to be a pragmatic acknowledgment of the stalemate. His directive removed the vaccine requirement for outdoor workers including “contracted landscapers, contracted or volunteer wildland firefighters, and contracted construction workers.” But under state mobilization, volunteer firefighters become temporary state employees covered under L&I and subject to Inslee’s mandates, according to Mike Faulk, spokesman for Inslee.

Responsibility for state mobilization was transferred from the military department to the Washington State Patrol and the Fire Marshal’s office in a 1997 update of the original legislation. WSP was unable to provide a state mobilization resource list of eligible and available districts for both 2021 and 2022 to confirm or put to rest the scuttlebutt that fewer local resources are available this year.

At a news briefing Friday, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said, “We are currently fully staffed” with 690 firefighters on the ground compared to 671 last year. Yet the contact list for the DNR northeast region wildland staff sent to fire districts Tuesday lists five out of 11 positions in the Arcardia Unit as vacant and at least one vacancy in every unit in the region. Arcadia responds in the Spokane region. More firefighters on the ground with gaps in the ranks of experienced leadership raises other concerns.

Concerns about firefighters being turned away led to questions to Bill Slosson, deputy chief state fire marshal, who had to reply through Chris Loftus, WSP director of communications, because the whole subject has been deemed “highly sensitive,” Slosson said. The answers were about as clear as the smoke from a pile of burning tires.

Loftus confirmed local fire agencies set their own vaccination policies but after a mobilization is declared, if volunteers want to fight fire in their own districts, they must have either proof of vaccination or not be paid by WSP. If nearby local crews want to stay and help fight fire under mutual aid agreements, they must have either proof of vaccination or not be paid by WSP. If crews don’t have proof of vaccination, then their fire equipment is also not available as a resource. If crews stay on scene but are compensated directly through their local agencies, vaccination isn’t required by the state.

It doesn’t make any sense to tell local firefighters to stay home, idle available engines, or pull a working crew off the line and replace them, assuming the vaccinated replacement crews aren’t stuck in traffic on Snoqulamie Pass.

This is not a comforting scenario for firefighters or property owners. If a major fire blows up, threatening homes and businesses, a state mobilization is declared, and local fire districts have to stand down, how long will it take for the lawsuits to start?

More than 80% of all wildland fires are human-caused and we still have months to go before the end of fire season in October. Commissioner Franz offered this good advice at last week’s briefing: “Be part of making sure this year is the safest, most reduced fire season ever by not starting them in the beginning.”

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

More from this author