Washington DNR requests a record $55 million budget

The agency wants to convert 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz unveiled on October 10 the largest budget request of its kind in state history: a $55 million Department of Natural Resources proposal for fighting wildfires and maintaining healthier forests in Washington.

The 2019-21 budget package, which already has bipartisan support from members of the Legislature’s Wildfire Caucus, would transform DNR’s firefighting strategy and reduce that hazards that unhealthy forests pose to Washington communities.

This year, DNR responded to about 1,700 wildfires – second only to the number of wildfire responses in 2009. Smoke from this year’s fires at times gave Washington the worst air quality in the world, and numerous fires forced families to evacuate their homes.

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz speaks about her budget request October 10, 2018 at the Department of Natural Resources helicopter maintenance hangar in Olympia, Washington.

“We need bold, forward-thinking investments to reduce wildfires. Inaction is not an option,” Franz said. “It’s time to come together to invest in strategies that keep wildfires small and our skies clear of smoke, and I look forward to working with the governor and the Legislature to ensure we have the resources we need to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

Wildfire fighting and prevention

The biennium budget request includes nearly $12 million to transform 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions. This would help retain seasoned firefighters at DNR and provide a staff to carry out critical forest health treatments, such as prescribed burning, during the offseason. The vast majority of DNR’s firefighting force is seasonal (only 43 firefighters work full time), prompting many firefighters to take their skills elsewhere.

“I love serving my community as a wildland firefighter,” said Tommy Matsuda, a seasonal firefighter at DNR. “But the part-time nature of the job makes it hard to sign up year after year. I would gladly stay on full time performing forest health work in the offseason if I was able.”

The agency’s firefighters would also receive more training to deal with increasingly complex wildfire seasons under the commissioner’s budget plan, to the tune of $2.2 million in the 2019-21 biennium. They would receive two additional helicopters – increasing their helicopter fleet to nine and helping them respond more rapidly to fires.

Additionally, more than $4.8 million would grow the firefighting force supplied by Washington’s prison system – from 300 to 380 workers – allowing incarcerated people to learn firefighting and forestry skills while reducing the state’s firefighting costs. The budget also would provide $100,000 to improve emergency communications and $234,200 to help assess landslide risk in areas affected by wildfire.

These requests support the commissioner’s Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan to make the fundamental changes necessary to stop and prevent uncharacteristically large wildfires.

“As a fire chief and incident management team member in a community impacted by wildfire, I know we need more resources on the ground,” Spokane County Fire District 9 Chief Jack Cates said. “With more full-time firefighters and air resources, the Department of Natural Resources will be better able to assist us in protecting endangered communities like Spokane County.”

Franz made her announcement alongside state Reps. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, as well as Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Chairman Rodney Cawston, Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Chief Dave LaFave, and Matsuda.

“The facts are simple: When fire is running across the landscape, it’s terrifying. It doesn’t matter if it’s 15,000. It doesn’t matter if it’s 80,000 acres. It’s terrifying,” said LaFave, a member of the the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Council and the Washington Fire Chiefs Association. “We want to see these initiatives move forward. We want to see a different decision today, so there’s a different outcome tomorrow.”

Because people cause 90 percent of all wildfires, teaching the public about wildfire prevention is another key part of the commissioner’s budget.

It would invest nearly $2 million in the creation of seven public-outreach specialists scattered across the state, and it includes $4.2 million for DNR’s Landowner Assistance Program. This program helps private forestland owners reduce the wildfire threat on their lands.

Restoring resilient, healthy forests

To get at the core of the problem, Franz’s budget request includes more than $5.7 million to speed up forest health restoration by creating a division solely committed to forest health. The proposal also asks for $17.7 million in capital budget funds to treat more than 32,000 acres of state, federal and private forests in targeted, high-risk areas.

And more than $724,000 in the proposal would dedicate two employees to manage the federal contracts, finances, and grants necessary to carrying out restoration treatments on federal lands. DNR and the U.S. Forest Service work together through the Good Neighbor Authority agreement to work toward their forest health goals.

“Wildfire doesn’t respect property boundaries,” Cawston said. “By increasing resources for our state’s wildland firefighters, we decrease the risk that wildfires pose to tribal communities and private property owners. This is a win-win for Washington.”

Shots fired toward firefighters in Washington state

Four firefighters felt they were targeted, including two from Australia

(This article was updated at 6:13 p.m. PDT September 10 after more information became available.)

Four firefighters said they were shot at while working on a fire in Washington State last month. Two of the firefighters were with the group of 80 that came over from Australia in early August to help suppress wildfires in the United States.

The incident occurred August 23 on the Miriam Fire near the White Pass Ski Area west of Rimrock Lake about 40 air miles west of Yakima, Washington in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The Miriam Fire is adjacent to the ski area.

A Rapid Lesson Sharing (RLS) report was posted at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center on September 7, 2018. It explains that two lookouts were talking with two of the Australian firefighters, one of which was a Division Supervisor and the other was a Safety Officer. They saw two people walking on the Pacific Crest Trail about 200 yards below them. Excerpts from the RLS document will take it from here:

…The incident personnel stand up and holler and wave. All four are wearing yellow Nomex fire shirts. Two had bright yellow hardhats. They therefore thought they had been seen by these two individuals.

The incident personnel watched with binoculars as one of the two individuals put a scoped rifle on a bi-pod and looked up the mountain toward them. They continued to wave until a shot was fired. They then bailed off the backside of the mountain to take cover as a second shot rang out.

DIVS A/C notified Communications of the rifle shots and told them to notify the two Lookouts on DP 10 about what happened and tell them to leave the area. The shooter and companion started to walk north on the PCT. The four incident personnel could no longer see them but heard several more shots coming from the direction that they had gone. The four bailed off the ridge, ran to the PCT, and went to Helispot H-4 for a helicopter ride out of the area.

At approximately 1510, the Incident Management Team (IMT) initiated the Incident Emergency Plan (an Incident within an Incident-IWI). The Deputy Incident Commander, Air Operations Branch Director, and Safety Officer went to the Communications Unit.

At that time, the following actions took place:

  • Divisions A and C were evacuated.
  • The Sheriff was notified.
  • The IMT’s Law Enforcement Officers (LEO) were responding to area, as well as the Field Operations Section Chief.
  • Helicopters were put on standby for evacuating the four incident personnel from H-4.
  • The ICP was locked down and supervisors were ordered to account for their personnel.
  • The Incident Commander and Agency Administrator were giving briefings (of what they knew) periodically to ICP/Camp personnel.
  • The Sheriff’s Deputies found the rifle shooting individuals’ vehicle on Highway 12 and ran the license plates. They were then able to locate people who knew them and confirmed that they had gone bear hunting near the ski area. The Sheriff’s Deputies then made contact with them.
  • They were cited for entering a closed area—with additional charges pending.

At 1730, the IWI was terminated. Personnel resumed their normal fire management and support duties.

Traci Weaver, a Public Affairs Officer for the Pacific Northwest Regional Office said a press release was issued the day after the incident. Apparently it did not get a great deal of attention at the time.

We checked, and this was in the middle of a long paragraph that talked about closures, resources, location, cause, and more:

…Yesterday, two people entered the Area Closure and fired rifles in the direction of our firefighters. This caused fire operations to halt in the ski area and that section of fireline to be evacuated until the situation could be resolved…

George Jacobs, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane said he understood that the two shooters were issued Violation Notices by the U.S. Forest Service. The charge was for being in an area that was closed by the Forest Service. The agency routinely issues Orders temporarily closing areas that are affected by large fires.

White Pass Ski area Miriam fire
Map showing the Miriam Fire (the red line) and the White Pass Ski area, about 40 air miles west of Yakima, Washington. Click to enlarge.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Firefighters meet at international border

The Horns Mountain / Santa Rosa Fire is burning in Washington and British Columbia

border canada united states firefighters horns mountain
Firefighters meet at the Canada / United States border while working on the Horns Mountain Fire. Canadians on the left and Americans on the right. Photo by Johnny Walker.

(Originally published at 4:15 p.m PDT August 28, 2018)

The 5,500-acre Horns Mountain Fire is burning in both Canada and the United States — Washington and British Columbia — east of  the Laurier Port of Entry border crossing. In Canada the fire is named Santa Rosa.

In the photo above firefighters from both countries had a good natured meeting at the international border. I would wager that the topics discussed did not include tariffs or trade agreements.

Due to numerous large fires in Washington and British Columbia, both sides experienced a shortage of resources. According to an update from the incident management team, “working together was a benefit to both”.

The fire is winding down thanks in part to favorable weather in the last few days. Some resources on both sides are being demobilized.

UPDATE: August 29, 2018: When we posted this on our Facebook page Eric Haberin wrote, “Very much West Side Story”. I found the fight scene on YouTube and got a screenshot:

fight scene in West Side Story
The Jets face off with the Sharks in West Side Story.

The big difference is that the firefighters are smiling.

Crescent Mountain Fire burns tens of thousands of acres west of Winthrop Washington

The fire is in north-central Washington 10 miles west of Winthrop

Above: The Crescent Mountain Fire on August 15, 2018. Inciweb photo.

(Originally published at 1:50 p.m. PDT August 24, 2018)

The Crescent Mountain Fire in north-central Washington has burned over 40,000 acres since a lightning strike started it on July 29. The fire is being managed at least in some areas as a less than full suppression fire. One of the primary reasons as you can see in the 3-D map below, is that the west side is burning into sparse vegetation above 7,000 feet in steep, remote, inaccessible terrain.

3-d map Crescent Mountain Fire
A 3-D map looking northwest at the Crescent Mountain Fire, the red line, at 9 p.m. PDT August 23, 2018. The red shaded areas indicate intense heat at the time the fire was mapped by a heat-sensing aircraft. Click to enlarge.

The fire is about 10.5 miles west of both Twisp and Winthrop, Washington.

map Crescent Mountain Fire
Vicinity map of the Crescent Mountain Fire in the state of Washington.

Evacuation orders are in effect for West Buttermilk Creek Road and Twisp River Road, west of the Buttermilk Creek intersection.

Northwest winds on Thursday caused the fire to be very active. The area with the greatest growth was on the south slope above the Twisp River on both sides of Scaffold Canyon and up to Scaffold Ridge. It has burned down to the West Fork of Buttermilk Creek.

Firefighters provided structural protection and assistance to homes along the Twisp River corridor throughout the day Thursday. Air operations were able to effectively slow the advance of the fire.

On the southwest side crews continue to monitor the fire within North Cascades National Park. Most of the fire is on land administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

map Crescent Mountain Fire
The red line on the map was the perimeter of the Crescent Mountain Fire at 9 p.m. PDT August 23, 2018. The red shaded areas indicate intense heat at the time the fire was mapped by a heat-sensing aircraft. Click to enlarge.

Wildfire activity increases in Washington

The state has 18 wildfires with varying levels of evacuations in effect

Firefighters in Washington state have been very busy recently, especially Saturday when 68 new fires were detected, primarily in the eastern part of the state. Abundant lightning accompanied by strong winds and very dry fuels created critical fire conditions.

They currently have 18 fires with varying levels of evacuations in effect.

map large wildfires Washington
Map showing some of the large wildfires in Washington, August 12, 2018. Click to enlarge.

One of the largest is the 45,000-acre Grass Valley Fire that started August 11 west of Grand Coulee Dam. Firefighters report extreme fire behavior with running and spotting. Evacuations and road closures are in effect.

The Cougar Creek Fire has burned 18,890 acres 25 mi west of Chelan, WA. The fire is exhibiting extreme fire behavior. Evacuations are in effect.

The 15,975-acre Crescent Mountain Fire is 16 miles west of Winthrop, WA.

lighting strikes August 11, 2018