In a Pacific Northwest environment where wildfire seems to play a bigger and more destructive role each summer, it’s not hard to imagine it happening here.
Imagine this scenario, for example: A fast-moving fire begins in Canada around British Columbia’s Cultus Lake.
Driven by strong northeast winds, the fire tears south down the Columbia Valley, enters the United States and continues unabated into Whatcom County’s Columbia Valley Urban Growth Area, where more than 3,000 residents live in neighborhoods such as Peaceful Valley and Paradise.
How fast, and how well, could local fire crews combat the blaze? How, and with how much time, would residents be evacuated if firefighters couldn’t save their homes?
Though unlikely, this what-if scenario has been used for interagency drills by the Whatcom County Sheriff Office’s Division of Emergency Management as part of its Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan, the FEMA-approved countywide plan for dealing with everything from volcanoes and earthquakes to landslides and tsunamis.
This plan is updated for FEMA every five years, and is due for another update in 2021. Other hazards planned for include human-caused concerns such as terrorist attacks or the derailment of a train with hazardous materials — the latter of which occurred last year in Custer.
Typically, a single hazard is chosen and focused upon each year for drills, said John Gargett, deputy director of the county’s division of emergency management. Wildland fires were chosen for focus in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed things back to the second half of 2021. When exactly this year’s exercises will be held is uncertain, Gargett said, as there is still hesitancy to pack several hundred people into a small area because of coronavirus concerns.
Regardless of focus, Gargett said the idea is the same: plan out as much as possible in case it actually happens.
“We work with all the stakeholders to figure out what and how would we respond,” Gargett said.
For wildland fires, the planning process is two-fold.
First, members of local fire districts, Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other necessary first responders gather at the county’s emergency operations center for tabletop exercises, addressing how they’d respond to a wildfire in a given set of circumstances. They establish how fire crews would battle a blaze, how law enforcement might assist in evacuations and how emergency management would handle logistical concerns like food, sanitation and proper communications.
These logistics get handled in real-life situations, such as with a fire that occurred on Reese Hill Road several years ago, Gargett said. Whatcom County Fire District 14, which has fire stations in the communities of Sumas, Kendall and Welcome, responded to that fire while emergency management personnel organized food and portable toilets for fire crews; they also handled press inquiries.
At the Kendall Fire Station, crews fortunately haven’t seen many brush fires this summer.
Whatcom County Fire District 14 Chief Jerry DeBruin said he hopes it’s at least partially because people are being more careful under unusually dry conditions: much of Whatcom County hasn’t seen any measurable rainfall since mid-June.
The occasional worried phone call the station receives, DeBruin added, suggests some people have adopted a fear-based vigilance about summer fires, possibly based off the headline-grabbing destruction from blazes in California and elsewhere. The fires that overwhelm firefighters and gobble up small towns, however, are unlikely to happen here due to differences in climate and terrain, he noted.
But just the same, many county fire districts have stepped up their wild- and brush fire preparedness with certified training and improved equipment.
Fire District 14 is home to about 60 firefighters, about 35 of which are “red-card certified” — that is, properly trained to understand wildland fire behavior and response.
David Moe, the district’s training officer, said they now offer new firefighters certification basically every year.
Training consists of up to 40 hours of classroom and outdoor instruction, usually held over two weekends, and includes book-based study on how weather can dramatically change the nature of wildfire.
“It’s a completely different animal than our regular, structural stuff,” Moe said. “And when it gets big, it can get really exciting really fast.”
Weather conditions — especially wind — are also of high concern. Wind shifts can quickly change a fire’s trajectory, often shifting flames, smoke and hot embers back towards the crews fighting it.
“When you look at the incidents where firefighters get hurt, that’s typically one of the big factors,” Moe said.
Fire incident commanders are equipped with hand-held weather meters, Moe said, and location-specific, short-term forecasts at a fire’s location can be obtained from the National Weather Service by emergency management, Moe added.
All three District 14 stations have some version of a wildland fire engine, Moe said, and several trucks have also had new water pumps installed.
Local fire districts are also helped by improvement in DNR resources and response times, and share in the responsibility of fighting most fires on DNR lands, Moe said. DNR has two dedicated fire engines for Whatcom County and can arrive a lot sooner to assist a local fire district than they used to, he added.
A former military helicopter — a refurbished Huey equipped with belly tanks holding several hundred gallons of water — is stationed at Big Lake in Skagit County as part of DNR’s Wildfire Aviation response. DNR crews also often perform preventative fire maintenance on DNR lands, doing things like thinning underbrush.
The cause? Usually human
With the varied topography and conditions in Whatcom County, however, not every fire district has shown a willingness to spend time and money on red-card certifying their firefighters when structural fires and EMS response are their primary missions, DeBruin said.
Districts to the south and eastern parts of the county are well-prepared, but more urban fire districts in Bellingham and elsewhere may have less preparation, simply because they are unlikely to face the same concerns of a fire station in the east county.
“Generally speaking, we think about wildfire more than Ferndale does,” DeBruin said.
Somewhere around 90% of Western Washington fires end up being human-caused, said Moe, meaning that almost all of those are preventable.
This makes public information campaigns incredibly important in getting people to pay attention to dangerous fire conditions, and it’s where local fire marshal’s offices play a big role.
For any homeowner, simple yard maintenance can help prevent a fire from spreading to your home, Metz said. This includes cleaning gutters of dry needles, removing dried or dead yard debris, and watering your lawn.
Unusually dry conditions make this even more critical, as seemingly benign circumstances can serve as ignition points for grass and brush fires.
On July 23, a brush fire bordering Interstate 90 forced intermittent highway closures after an errant tire from a boat trailer threw sparks into dry grass. DeBruin recalls a local incident several years ago, when a driver along East Badger Road had a mechanical issue with the wheel on their truck. Sparks from the resulting incident caught several hundred feet of roadside grass on fire; even the treated wood posts of the guardrail caught fire, he added.
Weather issues like wind and humidity compound the dangers of cigarette butts and normally innocuous fire responses.
Several years ago, a tree along Reese Hill Road fell onto an active power line. This type of incident would normally be a one-engine response to babysit the line until power company employees arrive, Moe said. But on this day, the power line landed in dried vegetation, igniting a fire that quickly engulfed several acres. Embers from a structural fire can also spread to nearby ignition sources, further creating havoc for fire crews.
Curtis Metz, deputy fire marshal in Whatcom County, said their office has doubled burn-ban signage this year compared to the previous couple of years. The office has a notification option citizens can sign up for, sending them information on burn ban adjustments through text or email.
Currently, Whatcom County remains in a stage 2 burn ban, and Metz said it is unlikely the burn ban level is reduced anytime soon unless conditions significantly change. A move towards a stage 3 burn ban, in which no open flames are allowed, could also be possible with continued dry conditions.
Follow the most restrictive
The marshal’s office determines when and how to enact burn bans by looking at rainfall and weather conditions, as well as considering DNR-determined fire dangers for different vegetation levels, Metz said. They also reach out to surrounding counties and local fire district chiefs to understand what they’re seeing, he added.
Sometimes, coexisting burn bans from local, state and federal levels may all have slightly different limitations, leading to possible confusion over what’s permitted and what’s not. At one point in June, Whatcom County found itself in a stage 1 burn ban, still allowing campfires, while the state DNR burn ban had already banned them.
“Whose regulations do you follow?” Metz said. “I would typically say the most restrictive. Make sure you’re safe.”
DeBruin agrees that prevention education is pivotal to preventing fires.
“I think education is profound,” he said. “If you can educate the people, and empower people locally with what they can do around their homes, that’s going to make a big difference.”
In the Columbia Valley UGA, DeBruin and Moe said District 14 is having far fewer garbage and debris fire issues than they saw 20 years ago. While the area is becoming more crowded, it is also becoming more of a suburban neighborhood, as modern homes with lawns replace heavily-forested lots with trailers or manufactured homes.
As adequate moisture continues to elude much of Whatcom County this summer, DeBruin said it is easy to be worried.
“There’s just a multitude of things that could get something going,” DeBruin said. “People need to be mindful when it gets this dry. That’s just the bottom line.”
[Ed. note: In addition to local wildfires, smoke from distant fires is increasingly a concern for communities across the West. For more, read “Wildfire smoke in the San Juans,” Orcas Currents, July 15, 2021.]
— Reported by Matt Benoit
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