(TNS) - Gray smoke rose and bright orange flames spread slowly down a forested hillside northwest of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area on Wednesday afternoon as more than 40 firefighters dug out a barrier.
Fortunately, the firefighters easily contained this small burn — ignited as part of a training exercise during the 10-day Central Washington Interagency Fire Training Academy hosted by the Department of Natural Resources. It was the first time on a fire line for new trainees from 18 agencies and 36 fire districts across Washington as they gear up for what could be another busy season.
The Yakima Valley could be among the most vulnerable regions in what’s expected to be an average year for the state, according to Department of Natural Resources incident meteorologist Josh Clark. A healthy snowpack in the central Cascades should help, but little snow at lower elevations left plenty of dry fuel for potential fires as temperatures rise.
“A lot of that’s going to depend on where we end up going in the next couple months,” Clark said last week. “What it probably means is that you’re going to see more frequent grass and shrub-type fires early in the season, but I wouldn’t chalk it up to an above-average fire season just yet.”
Indeed, firefighters dealt with a 50-acre brush fire in West Valley on Sunday, and district Fire Chief Nathan Craig said it felt like the start of another active season. He knows to anticipate the effects of hot and dry conditions with a desert climate that stays fairly consistent in the lowlands around the Yakima Valley.
Adequate training and preparation become more difficult and more essential as fire seasons continue to start earlier and last longer.
Good weather conditions ensured that everything went according to plan at Wednesday’s burning of less than 2 acres as officials watched approvingly, including Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands.
She said it’s already becoming a challenge to find the right times for prescribed fires in many unhealthy areas.
The department’s efforts to find and train 500 to 550 seasonal firefighters keep getting earlier on the calendar, and Franz said they’ve already seen 119 fires across the state. Craig noted that local wildland fire training now takes place in March, compared with May just 10 years ago.
Earlier this spring, Craig said, West Valley hosted a meeting with local fire departments, the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to prepare for the fire season and determine what resources would be available. Franz said those efforts continue to be critical to maximize effectiveness.
“Last year was the first time we brought all the different agencies together where we’re actually training together and learning the skills together,” Franz said. “Obviously it builds camaraderie; it builds better communication and collaboration.”
Her department offers equipment grants that will help agencies buy six to 10 trucks this year, helping local districts that typically arrive at fires quickest and handle the initial attack. The Department of Natural Resources provides support for larger fires such as the one in West Valley, and other organizations such as the National Guard can be called in to assist on the biggest fires.
A proliferation of fires on the west side of the Cascades in recent years created new problems for Franz, since the state must deal with a larger area without the aid of additional resources. She’s hopeful firefighters can successfully keep fires small and the 20-year wildfire strategic plan will lead to more resources in the near future.
Another limit on resources could come from forecasts of above-average seasons in states like Oregon and California, where fires begin to burn even earlier. But Franz said the implementation of the strategic plan minimized those issues by assigning incident command leaders and other contracted work to Washington long before fires start.
“And we’ll continue to be available,” Franz said. “We’re hoping our fire season is better again than the other states, and we’ll continue to try to provide support as we have needed support from them.”
Community support and the united approach of a new strategic plan represent critical weapons in fighting the serious threat fires pose to Washington.
It’s no secret the state’s forests are in trouble thanks in part to decades of mismanagement and total suppression of wildfires. Meanwhile, meteorologists expect long-term weather conditions to keep getting worse.
“We know we’ve gotten $13 million from our capital budget to really implement and ramp up our forest health program, but it doesn’t happen all at once,” Franz said. “So while we’re in this place of trying to reduce this fuel load on the ground, we’re still in that challenging place of having drier, hotter summers and still pretty significant fuel load on the ground that leads to fires.”
She noted that some of that money will be used to pre-position fire equipment and air assets such as the three helicopters involved with another of the academy’s training classes Wednesday at Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Those resources will be ready for action in Central Washington and other problematic regions throughout the state.
A lack of qualified experts means prescribed fire treatments won’t ramp up until at least next year, but private landowners can help thanks to a program funded by $4 million in the 2017-19 capital budget. Franz said three people already have applied for burn permits, and Wyatt Leighton, the department’s assistant region manager for wildfire and forest practices, encouraged others to learn more about the process by calling or going to www.dnr.wa.gov.
“It’s a fairly expensive thing to undertake because the risk is that fire leaving their property and impacting the adjoining neighboring properties,” said Leighton, who is based in Ellensburg. “So we have to require a reasonable amount of resources to be there to be sure that that’s not the outcome and that it doesn’t become a wildfire that then we have to come in and suppress and send a bill for.”
The cost depends on a variety of factors such as land size, how much smoke will be emitted and whether other treatment is needed before the burn. Leighton noted that the department provides cost-share options of up to 50 percent and emphasized that the project and proposal would be up to the landowner.
Around 70 percent of Washington wildfires are human-caused, so everyone can do their part to prevent wildfires by not illegally setting off fireworks in Yakima County and always burning with caution. Craig said some area fires start from sparks caused by mowing fields in the summer, so he recommended taking care of that now before it gets too hot and dry.
“As far as outdoor burning goes, people just need to know that as soon as they set their fire, they are responsible for it,” Craig said, noting that too often fires restart when a gust of wind propels a stray spark. “Pick the right day, and monitor the fire until it’s completely out.”
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