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Quicker Helicopter Access is Key to Wildfire Fighting, Fire Chief Tells Senate Committee

'Unfortunately, I have to wait for the Forest Service or a duty officer to arrive on the scene before a helicopter can be ordered.'

by Dee Riggs, The Wenatchee World, Wash. / November 18, 2015

(TNS) - Allowing local fire chiefs to quickly request helicopter aid from federal and state agencies could help put out wildfires faster, Chelan County Fire District 1 fire chief Mike Burnett told a senate committee Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, I have to wait for the Forest Service or a duty officer to arrive on the scene before a helicopter can be ordered,” Burnett said. “This use of aviation resources early on could keep a wildfire from becoming large.”

Allowing direct requests for helicopters without requiring the local fire district to pay for the resources is also important, he said. Otherwise, the local district “could be financially devastated” by having to pay for the helicopter use.

Burnett, who leads the fire department that covers all of Wenatchee and much of the surrounding area, was on a panel of fire management and aviation experts who addressed the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The committee reviewed past wildfire seasons and looked at future federal wildland fire management strategies. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat and ranking member of the committee, said she favors more prescribed burning and mechanical thinning, increased use of technology such as “unmanned aerial vehicles to give us more observation abilities,” and a new Doppler radar system, especially in high-wind situations.

“We do not want to face the 2016 fire season without better tools, processes and operations to help our states,” she said.

Burnett began his address by talking about the Sleepy Hollow Fire on June 28 that destroyed 30 homes and destroyed or badly damaged four commercial buildings more than a mile away from the wildfire. He also said it would help to have seasonal firefighters available “on a local level so we have a more robust initial attack.”

Burnett talked about the need for homeowners to reduce fuel around their homes. “In the Sleepy Hollow Fire, part of the neighborhood had defensible spaces and we were able to steer the fire around them,” he said. “In Broadview, we had homes tightly packed together and sitting on top of a ravine that had huge, old-growth sage in it.”

He stressed that city and county codes need to address fire dangers where wildlands and urban lands meet.

He also pointed to Forest Ridge, near Mission Ridge, as an example of a neighborhood that has worked well in reducing fuels and in creating a Firewise community, an organized effort to help homeowners minimize the risk of wildfire to their property.

Burnett emphasized the need to reduce fuels in the forest and noted those efforts around the Beehive Reservoir had helped stop the Peavine Fire in 2012.

Also on the panel was Jon Wyss, chairman of the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group. He said there is a need for “more real-time” weather updates, and told the committee that the state put out a call for firefighting volunteers for the first time ever this summer but the effort was hampered by not having trained bosses to oversee the volunteers.

Recovery efforts, he said, will take 10 to 15 years as people deal with financial impacts and the loss of habitat for wildlife. He noted that deer will be forced to eat buds and leaves off of fruit trees. “People are going to lose their businesses, their farms and their ranches,” he said, “but we will come out stronger, better and more efficient.”


©2015 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)

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