State’s largest wildfire disaster captures lawmakers’ attention 2015 Seassion

State’s largest wildfire disaster captures lawmakers’ attention | 2015 Session

17 March 2015

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USA — It’s been almost eight months since the largest wildfire in Washington’s history scorched the Methow Valley, and criticism over the official firefighting response by the state’s Department of Natural Resources continues to rage.

What began with four individual fires quickly expanded into the 268,764-acre Carlton Complex fire. Over the course of a month, the fire engulfed more than 300 homes and caused more than $65 million in damages, according to DNR. Many victims have filed lawsuits against the state for damages, charging that the department was negligent in its handling of the disaster.

Along with uncharacteristically dry weather patterns, the DNR blames shortfalls in personnel and equipment for the fire’s exponential growth. Now, lawmakers here are working to secure those resources locally so that no future wildfires have the chance to become behemoths like the Carlton Complex.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, partnered with Reps. Shelly Short, R-Addy, Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, and Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, to sponsor HB 2093, which would alter the department’s wildfire-fighting policy in a number of ways. The measure passed unanimously out of the House, giving it a strong sendoff to the Senate.

The bill would allow private citizens to enter onto private or public land to fight wildfires if they believe the fire poses an immediate danger and their efforts would stop or slow its spread. As long as the person obeys instructions given to them by firefighters at the scene or notifies the department of their actions, they would not be liable for any damage to the property.

Mary Verner, DNR’s deputy supervisor for resource protection, said this kind of help could range from someone pulling their car over to put out a small fire with a blanket to a farmer using heavy equipment to block the path of a much larger blaze.

The department is currently authorized to enter into agreements with local residents who have equipment that could be used for fire suppression, like bulldozers, tractors and water sprayers. HB 2093 would require the department to compile and annually update a list of those resources and send it out to all local emergency-response officials.

Verner said the provision “requires a level of proactivity on DNR’s part” to seek out individuals who may not already have agreements with the department and then send the list to local officials.

The bill also requires state Land Commissioner Peter Goldmark to appoint a statewide wildfire liaison, who would represent the interests of local residents while firefighting is going on. The liaison would be responsible for knowing weather patterns in fire-prone areas, local opinions of the department’s actions, and where local fire-fighting resources are located. A statewide wildfire advisory committee, headed by the liaison, would also be created to advise the commissioner on the department’s statewide firefighting activities.

“What we’re looking for is a local component,” Kretz said. “We need someone right there who understands the local terrain, the weather conditions on the ground, knows where local resources are to assist DNR, and makes sure we’re getting the quickest response.”

The department has been repeatedly criticized for its initial response to the Carlton Complex fire. Some critics, including Kretz, say bureaucracy made it difficult for some firefighters to get permission to do anything at all.

“I think we’ve gotten to the point where the firefighting system has gotten to be so much of a bureaucracy — going through channels and all sorts of things — that it slows down that initial response, which has got to be lightning fast,” Kretz said.

Firefighters responsible for subduing one of the initial fires near the Cougar Flat campground north of Twisp were pulled out to fight another fire after requests for help were unsuccessful. After two days of being deemed the lowest priority fire by the department, the Cougar Flat fire merged with two others and reached the town of Pateros just eight minutes after residents were warned of its approach.

Verner said the four initial fires expanded the way they did in part because all available resources were already spread around the state fighting other fires.

“In the Carlton Complex you had an extremely challenging situation on a number of different fronts with cell towers going out, electricity going out, and a lot of resources out of the area,” she said. “The Carlton Complex does not yield itself to easy analysis, but certainly we’re always trying to do better, and we’ve heard from folks loud and clear that they want us to do our best to not let bureaucracy get in the way.”

More than 170 homeowners are suing the state for damages after 65 original claims were denied by the Department of Natural Resources. The agency says that because they made attempts to put the fire out, they could not be held liable for the damages.

Alex Thomason, the Brewster attorney behind the lawsuit, believes differently.

“The department negligently responded to fires, failed to allocate resources, hampered their own response times, refused access to other fire crews and turned the Forest Service away when a smokejumper wanted to get involved,” he said. “This shouldn’t have happened and we have more than 30 firefighters who are going to testify to that fact. We have literally hundreds of witnesses that are going to testify on DNR’s negligence.”

Jessica McCarthy, Kretz’s legislative aid and a Methow Valley resident, lost her home in the Carlton Complex fire. Her husband, Charlie, a professional smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service, watched one of the original four fires approach Twisp as he flew out to help fight a smaller fire in Idaho.

When he called the fire in on July 14, he was told to fly on because others were already responding. Evacuations began the next day, and by July 17 the 45,000-acre fire had engulfed nearly 168,000 acres, plus parts of the town of Pateros.

Jessica left for work that morning and because of highway closures couldn’t make it back until it was too late, although she said she probably wouldn’t have wanted to be there anyway.

“When I came home there was nothing but foundation left of our place,” she said.

Art Nordang is one of those charging the department with negligence.

As a Methow Valley resident with a bulldozer and experience fighting wildfires in the area, Nordang was one of the Carlton Complex’s first responders. On his way home after working through the first night of the fire, he noticed a small fire on the opposite side of the Methow River and called it in to DNR.

After watching other fires grow throughout the day and hearing no word about the fire he called in, Nordang decided to go investigate the small blaze on his own. By the time he got there, however, it was anything but small.

“What had been barely more than a bonfire at 8 that morning had grown completely out of control, coming down river at a rapid rate,” he said. “I was absolutely furious. In my estimation, there was absolutely no reason in the world for that to have happened. You and I could have put that fire out when I first saw it.”

By July 17, Nordang was defending his own property from what was now being called the Carlton Complex fire. But the Department of Natural Resources, he says, was no help at all in stopping it from reaching them.

“DNR showed up for 15 minutes scared out of their britches,” he said. “They wouldn’t talk about anything but when we were going to evacuate.”

Nordang says he sent the department workers further along the road to cut down a hazardous tree. They agreed to the task. But when he came to check their progress a few minutes later, they were nowhere to be found and the tree was still standing.

“That kind of negligence is near criminal, if you ask me,” Nordang said. The fire ended up burning down his cabin and well house, as well as approximately 6,000 feet of fencing.

Verner said she couldn’t comment on the actions of specific responders due to the pending litigation.

HB 2093 was approved by the House 97-0 on March 10. It is scheduled for a public hearing March 18 in the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee.

It would cost the department $538,000 per-year to implement the policy changes. The department is also requesting an additional $4.5 million from the Legislature for five new fire crews and other firefighting resources.

Terms detailed for assisting
wildland firefighting response

In order for a person to lawfully access public or private land to suppress a wildland fire, House Bill 2093 requires that all of the following conditions must exist:

— there is an active fire on or in near proximity to the land;
— the person has a reasonable belief that the local fire conditions are creating an emergency situation and that there is an imminent danger of a fire growing or spreading to or from the parcel of the land being entered;
— the person has a reasonable belief that preventive measures will extinguish or control the wildfire;
— the person has a reasonable belief that he or she is capable of taking preventive measures;
— the person only undertakes measures that are reasonable and necessary until professional wildfire suppression personnel arrives;
— the person does not continue to take suppression actions after specific direction to cease from the landowner;
— the individual takes preventive measures only for the period of time until efforts to control the wildfire have been assumed by professional wildfire suppression personnel, unless explicitly authorized by professional wildfire suppression personnel to remain engaged in suppressing the fire;
— the person follows the instructions of professional wildfire fighting personnel, including ceasing to engage in firefighting activities, when directed to do so by professional fire suppression personnel;
— the person promptly notifies emergency personnel and the landowner, lessee, or occupant prior to entering the land or within a reasonable time after the individual attempts to extinguish or control the wildland fire.

Wildland Fire Advisory Committee
mandated by legislative proposal

Terms of House Bill 2093 provide for creation of a Wildland Fire Advisory Committee administered by the Commissioner of Public Lands and chaired by his appointed liaison. The committee would advise the commissioner on matters related to wildland firefighting to include capital budget requests for those firefighting responsibilities plus matters enhancing the safe and effective use of private and public wildland firefighting resources.

The following committee slots are mandated by the legislation:

— two county commissioners, one each from east and west of the Cascade mountains;
— two owners of industrial land, one of timberland and one of rangeland;
— the state fire marshal or a representative of the State Fire Marshal’s Office;
— two individuals with the title of fire chief, one each from east and west of the Cascade mountains;
— one individual with the title of fire commissioner;
— one small forest landowner;
— one representative from a federal wildland firefighting agency, a Tribal nation, a statewide environmental organization, and a state land trust beneficiary.

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