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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Our hearts are aching in here’: Colville dispatch center serves critical role in fighting wildfires like Oregon Road, Gray fires

Jill Jones, manager of the Northeast Washington Interagency Communications Center, plots a potential fire on a giant map Wednesday at the Northeast Interagency Command Center in Colville.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

While the Oregon Road and Gray fires were ripping through Spokane County, a team of dispatchers in Colville were coordinating air and ground resources to the blazes.

The Northeast Washington Interagency Communications Center dispatches state and federal agencies, including Washington State Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, to wildfires burning in the 10 northeastern Washington counties.

Jones said the center started operations in 2008 and is one of four interagency dispatch centers across the state.

“The beauty of this is that we’re all in this one building, in one facility and work together seamlessly,” said Jill Jones, interagency dispatch center manager in Colville.

Dispatchers sit in front of six computer monitors where they take radio calls, log information about a fire and dispatch fire engines, hand crews, aircraft or whatever resource is needed.

Cedar Reimer, dispatch operations coordinator, said one of her duties is helping dispatchers track fire resources by moving magnets, representative of those resources, on a large wall map. The magnets help dispatchers send the closest resources to a fire to improve response times.

The team also tracks weather conditions, like lightning strikes and wind shifts, and watches for new fire starts.

Reimer, who started as a seasonal dispatcher in 2016, said tracking various monitors, radio communications and myriad other duties is like learning another language at first but becomes second nature over time.

“It’s asking for and accepting help when it’s offered and recognizing that you might be getting a little overwhelmed,” Reimer said.

Luckily, Jones said some of the 22 employees, including herself, at the center have more than 30 years of experience.

“A lot of experience here but also a lot of passion for what we do,” she said.

Jones said most of the dispatchers are seasonal, similar to wildland firefighters, and some fly in from other states. For example, an aircraft dispatcher at the center came from Cody, Wyoming.

She said some dispatchers were brought in to help during the Oregon Road and Gray fires.

Jones said the center also directs resources to emergencies, such as wildfires, hurricanes or oil spills, in other parts of the country.

Jones is in her 36th fire season and has been at the Colville center since it opened 15 years ago. She’s experienced major fire events, like the firestorm that scorched over 100 homes, thousands of acres and left two people dead in 1991.

Most recently, Aug. 18 was a “particularly crazy day in the dispatch center,” she said. That’s when the Oregon Road and Gray fires in Spokane County, Winona fire in Whitman County and other fires in the region started.

“That coverage area is pretty large and all those fires were going at the same time, so it was pretty busy,” Jones said.

Jones said it’s “incredibly humbling” working at the center.

“Even though there’s devastation on those fires, those tragedy fires, those Gray and Oregon (fires), where we’re losing primary residences, our hearts are aching in here,” Jones said. “But we’re doing everything we can. To watch my team in here, it’s inspiring.”

Jones and Holly Huston, intelligence coordinator, said the coolest part about the job is helping people.

“I think the most satisfying part is probably helping,” Huston said. “None of us would be here if we didn’t have a heart for that in some way.”