Wildland fire fighting is seasonal by nature. It usually peaks from June through September in Western Washington, although each year is different. In 2023 more fires burned in Western Washington, than on the east side, a historical first. Drought conditions contributed to a near-record high number of fires, more than 1,850 across the state.
Climate change and forest conditions are lengthening the average active burn seasons, and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has taken on increased responsibilities for public education and fire prevention.
The seasonal rhythm of firefighting is changing. What used to be an off season for firefighters and DNR management is increasingly crowded with work. The fire season is never truly over; its cycles just pulse. And that complicates the lives of the people who do this vital work.
Seasonal “rhythm and flow”
“There’s a real rhythm and flow, I feel like, to fires a lot of times,” said Iris Banks, an engine lead for Washington’s Department of Natural Resources, based out of Bellingham.
Although Banks was referring to the rhythm of fighting an individual fire — the assessing, deciding, acting and communicating necessary to combat flames — her observation represents a broader truth: The entire fire community experiences an annual cycle of preparing for, fighting and mopping up after fires. Each part of that cycle comes with challenges.
“I didn’t ever expect to end up in fire,” said Banks. After college and a couple AmeriCorps jobs, she returned to Bellingham in 2018, right as many students were leaving their fire crews, and DNR needed replacements. “I kind of jumped on that seasonal Ferris wheel, and here I still am,” said Banks.
Seasonal firefighters for DNR typically start in spring, and many of them are college students who have to head back to campuses in late August or September. Others are so-called snow flies. “You’re on until the snow flies,” Banks explained. The season’s end varies. This year, the season died down in Western Washington in mid-October; in 2022, it lingered well into November.
The shift from fire season to off season can feel sudden. “It is a really drastic change,” said Banks. The crew spends almost every waking moment together, often in intense situations over long shifts. Then they are gone.
Banks likened it to breaking up with someone. “You have this really intimate knowledge about them,” she said. “Like, how do they take their coffee? And, you know, what do they wake up looking like in the morning? And then, you kind of just have no use for all that information.” There is a void.
Leaving the fire crew can be a mental health challenge, along with other stresses familiar to first responders. Some experience seasonal depression. Banks said that DNR has worked hard to share mental health resources with employees and how to access them. A peer support network has been successful in creating an easy avenue to discuss traumatic events experienced on the job. [Related: “Behind the uniform: first responder mental health challenges,” Salish Current, Dec. 5, 2023]
Other difficulties for seasonal employees can include housing and health insurance, which are not aligned with firefighters’ unique circumstances. Finding stable housing for the few months of firefighting can pose problems, given terms for typical leases. Also, the only way to make this seasonal employment work financially is to put in as many hours as possible. That means that during the time they are employed and have health insurance, seasonal firefighters have little time to use the benefits. Then, in the off season, they no longer have access to those benefits.
Some seasonal employees extend their season by working in other departments of DNR on short-term projects. Banks has worked with foresters on timber sales, for example. Some firefighters travel in the off season, as many need that time to recharge. Others find different work, although locating employment that allows for their seasonal rhythms can be challenging. Ski-lift operations are a common complement.
Seasonal employees experience fire rhythms most dramatically, but while they recuperate, the rest of the fire community is recovering and preparing, too.
Preparing for the next season
Full-time DNR employees experience the same intensity of the firelines that Banks described. They are also tasked with ensuring the agency is staffed and ready. Their rhythm and flow look different from Banks’. When seasonal firefighters head back to school, or off to Hawaii, or up to Mount Baker Ski Area, fire management officers (FMO) like Kirk Troberg are providing year-round continuity for DNR and ensuring it continuously improves. [Related: “San Juans assess fire risk, in the aftermath of Lahaina,” Salish Current, Sept. 1, 2023]
However, as the fire season drags on longer — “elongating” to use Troberg’s word — the time available for recovery and preparation constricts.
In 2023, Troberg finished his 17th fire season, 13 of them with DNR. As the FMO for the Kulshan Unit out of Bellingham, one of his key tasks is conducting AARs, after-action reviews. These are done at multiple scales, including at the end of every shift and every fire, but also at the end of the season. AARs help provide direction for how to meet the next year’s challenges.
Besides reviewing the previous season, crews must look ahead and attend to material and personnel needs.
“We’ve got lots and lots of equipment,” Troberg said. “And it all has to get its once over and be put away clean and ready to go for the winter.” That means various repairs and winterization processes — “a pretty significant workload.”
Also in this late-autumn period, many in the fire community are “trying to do normal human stuff that they don’t get an opportunity to do a lot of the year,” according to Troberg. (As this is published, Troberg is on vacation.)
Then comes January and interviewing and building the crews.
Hiring has increased in recent years. House Bill 1168, or the Wildfire Response, Forest Restoration, and Community Resilience Act, passed unanimously in Washington’s House and Senate and was signed by Governor Jay Inslee in 2021. The law infused DNR with funds to support its growing fire mission.
The growth in staff has been notable. Before HB 1168, for instance, Troberg managed one year-round staff member and one six- to nine-month technician, plus 13 seasonal firefighters; now, he has 11 year-round staff, one tech, and 20 seasonals. This pace of growth is true across the state, not just in the Kulshan Unit.
“It’s a good thing that we’ve grown as much as we have,” Troberg said. “The agency needed that capacity to provide the service we’re supposed to provide to the public.”
As HB 1168 bulked up the staff, it also increased its responsibilities, and “the downswing, the kind of low, easy, relaxing part of the cycle is definitely shrinking,” according to Troberg.
Added tasks include executing prescribed burns, conducting risk assessments to residences and writing burn plans for and monitoring industrial burns.
In and among all those tasks, firefighters are training. Troberg said April to July is the critical training period where crews come together to obtain all the training “we can absorb, sometimes even more than that.” Then, “fires start happening and you’re off to the races.”
You can prevent forest fires
Part of DNR’s role is to be ready to fight fire; another part is to prepare communities and reduce the likelihood of fires devastating them. This takes time.
“We’re actually really busy all year round,” said Jennifer Coe, a community wildfire resilience coordinator for most of Western Washington from her base in Bellingham. Coe worked in wildfire education and outreach for nearly two decades with conservation districts in Whatcom and Skagit counties before joining DNR about a year and a half ago.
HB 1168 created a Community Wildfire Resilience team within DNR, dedicated to helping communities adapt to wildfire. It addresses different scales from individual property owners to neighborhoods to entire counties. Coe helps with outreach, education and collaboration with local partners to prepare communities before fires. While the seasonal firefighters are doing things outside DNR, Coe said her work is “in full swing.”
Two main initiatives are Firewise, a national program, and Wildfire Ready Neighbors, a DNR program. The staffing boost of HB 1168 has helped develop and expand these programs into Western Washington. Collectively, this work aims to reduce risks, for example by minimizing problems in the home ignition zone, the area within 100 feet of homes. Cleaning up this zone shrinks the chances of buildings burning.
But Coe’s work and others with DNR also includes being subject matter experts for county-level Community Wildfire Protection Plans. These CWPPs are in various stages of development and updating. Skagit County’s is up to date; Whatcom County includes a robust wildfire section as part of its Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan; San Juan County’s CWPP needs an update but the conservation district received funding for that and is about to launch the process. All this work requires coordination with multiple stakeholders. Eventually, the state forester signs off on these plans.
According to Coe, awareness has increased. “I do think Western Washingtonians are paying attention to the wildfire issue,” she said. More public demand creates the need for more staff to meet it, not to mention the work created by environmental requirements. [Related commentary: “State-mandated tree clearings will not improve wildfire resiliency,” Salish Current, Nov. 7, 2023]
With more 5.6 million acres of lands to manage, DNR has always has something to do for fire. “It’s a cycle that just kind of feeds itself, right?” said Coe. “Because you’re working to prepare, and then if you have a fire, you’re recovering. But you’re also preparing better for the next time, so you can recover better the next time.”
To keep on helping, Banks is applying for next year.
“It can be a little bit hard, I think, to get off of the merry-go-round of seasonal work,” said Banks. “Because, for example, for the job that I’m in, applications are due by the end of this month.”
Like the seasons in a world feeling climate change, the cycle continues — just a little bit different, busier and harder.
— Reported by Adam M. Sowards