Wash. Firefighters Face Unprecedented Wildfire Count
Aug. 01—Firefighters are responding to more wildfires this year in Washington state, and new efforts to extinguish them quickly are paying off.
The state Department of Natural Resources has already responded to 891 fires in 2018, up from 853 in all of 2017, the agency said. The season is far from over. August is typically one of the busiest months for firefighters in the state, said Aaron Schmidt, DNR fire operations chief.
"(Fire season) is going significantly differently this year," Schmidt said. "We've had a potpourri of fire starts: dragging trailer chains, abandoned campfires, exploding targets."
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency Tuesday because of wildfires burning in the state. The move allows the National Guard to help fight wildfires.
"Catastrophic fires are burning up and down the West Coast, putting a strain on our firefighting resources," Inslee said in a Tuesday news release.
Two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters will be placed at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane on Wednesday morning and five 20-person crews will be deployed to northeast Washington to work on existing wildfires, according to a DNR news release.
Schmidt said about 75 to 90 percent of fires in the state are human-caused. Many are accidental, but others, such as those caused by abandoned campfires, are 100 percent preventable, he said.
"If you're doing anything that's heat- or spark-emitting and there's dry stuff nearby, be mindful and cautious of how you deal with it," Schmidt said.
By using air resources and positioning equipment in areas at higher risk for wildfires, firefighters have kept 94 percent of fires under 10 acres, DNR said.
Most of the rest have been 50 to 200 acres, and firefighters have been able to extinguish them in their initial attack, Schmidt said. He said that's because there's been a change in response this year.
The frequency and response level of air attacks have increased: when smoke is reported in an area, instead of waiting for fire personnel to confirm there's a fire, DNR starts the process of getting air resources on the way immediately, Schmidt said.
"We're taking a shock-and-awe approach to fires and nailing them quick," Schmidt said. "While using air resources is expensive, it's better to have them here and pay a little up front to put the fire out, than ending up with a $10 million fire."
On Monday, firefighters battled a fast-burning brush fire 10 miles east of Moxee and were able to keep the fire away from 30 to 40 nearby homes as it burned through about 1,500 acres, said East Valley Fire Chief Mark Emery.
Resources on scene included 60 to 70 firefighters, a tanker plane dropping fire retardant, a spotter plane with water, a helicopter and a bulldozer strike team from the Lower Valley. Emery said the air resources and response from surrounding areas prevented the fire from becoming worse.
The cause is under investigation.
After fires raged through the state during the 2014 and 2015 fire seasons, Schmidt said fire managers added more firefighters, fire engines and aircraft. DNR has 11 helicopters and eight single engine air tankers. DNR will add another two helicopters and two tankers by the end of the week, he said.
The DNR has 550 seasonal firefighters responding to fires and 800 full-time DNR employees who could respond if needed, Schmidt said. He said about 1,000 of those people now are fighting fires statewide.
Schmidt said the resources have made all the difference in keeping fires smaller and extinguishing them faster.
"If we didn't have the staff and resources we have right now to respond to the increase in fires this season, we'd be looking at a different picture," Schmidt said.