Officials: 'Separate your ego from the business of fighting fire'

With another severe fire season predicted this year, the meeting was an effort to look for solutions that will help prevent a repeat of last summer

The Wenatchee World

BREWSTER, Wash. — Nearly six months after the Carlton Complex Fires raged through Pateros, George Pearson said it’s still hard sometimes to control his anger. It’s hardest, he said, when his wife starts crying out of the blue because something she lost in the fire pops into her head.

“It was leadership, 100 percent, that caused this smoldering tree to cause the biggest fire in state history,” he told state officials on Monday night.

Pearson was among more than 150 people who packed the Brewster High School library for a meeting on the 2015 fire season, hosted by state Rep. Joel Kretz, and Rep. Brian Blake, chairman of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.

Numerous state officials attended and spoke, including Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, State Fire Marshall Chuck Duffy, Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, and officials from the state Emergency Operations Center.

With another severe fire season predicted this year, the meeting was an effort to look for solutions that will help prevent a repeat of last summer, Kretz said.

Some pointed to what went wrong with response to the four lightning-caused fires.

John Clees told officials that he and a neighbor were on their way to put out the lightning-strike fire in Gold Creek that hit behind his house, but were told not to.

“The fire started in a tree that should have been put out in 20 minutes,” he said. “I’m mad at what has happened here.”

Firefighters with decades of experience said departments and agencies that once coordinated well together didn’t on this fire.

“Twenty years ago, we had better communication than we did that week,” said Carlene Anders, a Pateros firefighter who once fought fire for the state DNR and U.S. Forest Service. “In the digital world and with this kind of technology, we should be able to protect people better.”

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said he’d like to see changes in the three-evacuation-level system. He said too many people have come to expect that, if there’s a fire, they’ll get three levels of notices, and believe that a deputy will show up for every notification.

During Carlton Complex, he said, at the suggestion of one of his sergeants, they started issuing Level 3 notices to everyone — telling people to leave immediately — knowing they wouldn’t be able to get back to them. “If we had told everybody there it’s a Level 1, how many people would have died?” he asked.

Dave Schulz, former Okanogan County Commissioner who also fought fires, said about 75 percent of the wildfires in Washington occur in Okanogan, Chelan, Ferry and Stevens counties, so they should be getting the most resources. He questioned how, after only two large fires totaling less than 450,000 acres in the 1900s, there could be eight large fires in just the first 14 years of the 21st century totaling nearly 1.2 million acres.

Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell said changes need to be made in how resources are called. He said local contractors sat ready to respond to the fire while fire officials waited for resources to arrive from other areas.

“Separate your ego from the business of fighting fire,” Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro told state officials.

DeTro said he also fought fire for the DNR, and remained trained to respond to fires for 50 years. “Whoever got to the fire first put it out — industry, agency or a private citizen, it didn’t matter,” he said. He also asked state officials to join him in pushing for a policy change that would allow smokejumpers to respond before they receive written orders. Trained and able to respond anywhere in the state within 45 minutes, the crews sometimes sit in an airplane for up to an hour waiting for their faxed orders to come in, he said.

Alex Thomason, a Brewster lawyer representing 155 people who brought claims against the state Department of Natural Resources, said one of the problems is that the government makes more money when it fights big fires. He suggested paying bonuses for putting out fires quickly.

State officials, too, offered their own suggestions.

Goldmark said he’s asking for more funds to improve forest health, which can impact fire severity, and for more funds to help homeowners make their property more resilient to fire.

Loren Torgerson, DNR’s northeast region manager, said the agency is also seeking more helicopters and other equipment, as well as better dispatch cooperation between agencies.

But Bruce Holloway, a Spokane County fire chief who was incident commander for the east segment of the Carlton Complex Fires, coming on after the homes had burned, said he believes better coordination between agencies could be key.

Holloway said after the 1991 firestorm in Spokane County — after years of not getting along — fire agencies there started trying harder to work with each other.

“The feds, the state and the locals need to work together and make sure they’re using the resources. “It takes commitment and it takes work. We’re still not totally there,” he said.

However, he added, “We just spent the last 20 years to where now, we’re a cohesive force. Everybody uses everybody else’s resources.”

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