Criticism continues over Wash. wildfire response

Crews were hampered by problems with the 911 and radio systems; officials want improved coordination and communication

The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA, Wash. — As wildfire conditions look to be as bad this coming summer as last, criticism continues over state officials’ response to the Carlton Complex wildfire.

The Carlton Complex fire — the largest in the state’s recorded history, responsible for destroying more than 300 homes — burned out months ago. But you could still hear the damage echoing in the choked and sometimes angry voices of Central Washington officials at a House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell and others outlined their frustrations last week over the state Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) initial response to the fire, and argued for locals to get more authority to manage forestlands and fight fires.

“The initial response to this fire was an overall failure by the DNR,” Campbell told lawmakers Thursday in a hearing before the committee.

Campbell and others said a plane carrying smoke jumpers that could have been used to fight the fire early on flew right over the area and instead went to Oregon. And locals with the gear and enthusiasm to stop the fire could have been enlisted.

Carlene Anders, a volunteer firefighter in Pateros and former DNR wildfire fighter, said local crews were hampered during the Carlton Complex by problems with the 911 system and radio systems. And only local fire chiefs were able to communicate with the DNR, while ordinary engine crews were not, said Anders, who is also the executive director of the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group.

“If it weren’t for our cellphones, we’d have been in trouble,” said Anders, whose mother’s home burned down during the fires.

The criticism has launched the DNR, which includes the state’s wildfire fighting division, on a listening tour of sorts. The agency has “recently had several substantive discussions in Eastern Washington with community representatives, firefighters and partners,” according to Mary Verner, a deputy supervisor for DNR’s Resource Protection and Administration.

The talks included how to improve coordination and communication, Verner wrote in an email. And DNR met with local fire chiefs recently in Omak specifically to work on fixing the communication issues.

Frustration over the wildfire response is also bubbling up in a series of bills introduced this legislative session. HB 1677 would authorize the state to use more local firefighters when it finds itself overwhelmed; HB 1699 would protect people from civil and criminal penalties for going on land they don’t own to put out fires in an emergency.

A third bill, HB 1262, would explore the option of determining whether DNR could manage the state’s federal forest lands, which the bill contends are poorly managed.

DNR wouldn’t comment on HB 1262, but the department is looking at the other two bills and working with legislators on them, according to Verner.

DNR has contended that it was bedeviled last summer by a shortage of resources in the largest of three consecutive outsized fire seasons. In mid-July, when the four fires started that combined to become the Carlton Complex, the agency was fighting 86 other fires in the state.

“Oregon and Idaho were in similar difficulty,” Verner wrote. “There were not enough resources to go around.”

This legislative session, DNR is asking lawmakers for $20 million to use for preventive measures to improve forest health on the east side of the state. The money also would fund a program to work with communities and landowners to clear away dead brush around homes in areas prone to fire.

The department is asking for an additional $4.5 million to restore cuts made to firefighter crews in previous years and to beef up gear like the agency’s helicopters, fire engines and crews.

As for the plane that passed over Central Washington to deliver smoke jumpers to a fire in Oregon, Verner said that decision was out of the state’s hands.

“If there was a decision to send them to Oregon, it would have been a decision at the federal, not state level,” she wrote.

Despite the DNR’s listening tour and new initiatives, Campbell, the Okanogan County commissioner, says he remains skeptical.

“I think they’ve learned lessons,” said Campbell, who lives south of Carlton. “But I don’t think they’re going to change policy.”

And with a recovery from the Carlton Complex that could take years, Anders and others are worried about a repeat this summer.

“We cannot go through something like this again,” Anders told lawmakers.

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