Okanogan officials testify on fire in Olympia; Rep. Joel Kretz proposes changes

Members from the Carlton Complex Fire Recovery Group and Okanogan County officials traveled to Olympia Thursday to discuss the Carlton Complex Fire that burned more than 256,000 acres and destroyed more than 400 structures.

The entire two-hour meeting of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee was dedicated to reviewing challenges and lessons learned from the fire. First, the state Department of Natural Resources presented the agency's work in responding to the fire.

Jim DeTro, Ray Campbell and Jon Wyss from Okanogan County testified about the fire response. They presented evidence of the problems with mismanagement and lack of communication.

“Indecision in initial stages led to incredible losses suffered last summer,” DeTro said. “Lack of awareness regarding the resources available and their location resulted in delayed responses and ineffective deployment. We're asking for authorization in statute directing that local emergency response plan contains procedures for wildfire response in the crucial first hours following discovery [of a wildfire].”

Campbell shared how local smokejumpers were sent to a fire in Oregon and flew over one of the smaller fires that ended up joining the Carlton Complex Fire.

“Those smokejumpers should have been deployed right there in their backyard,” Campbell said. “Within the valley, we had numerous contract firefighters, and we had plenty that didn't get deployed.”

Wyss talked about the agriculturalists, foresters, environmentalists, tourists and  economy that make up Okanogan County.

“Right here, the decisions we make today, will decide it all. Are we going to continue with the policies that are allowing these large fires, or are we going to provide new direction and ensure a future for our county and state?” Wyss said. “It all starts with you, the elected officials who have oversight and can propose legislation, to ensure this type of fire doesn't happen again.”

Later in the hearing, Carlene Anders, executive director of the Carlton Complex Recovery Group, shared her experiences as a volunteer firefighter from Pateros.

“Firefighting has changed from the time I started until now. I felt safer 20 years ago than I did in this situation. If it weren't for the gumption of the local people, we would have had people die in this fire. It is so important to fight fires aggressively, and if we don't, then we put more firefighters in danger,” Anders said.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, was given time during the hearing to share photos he took while fighting the fire with locals. Many of the photos showed agency representatives driving away from the fire while other photos showed the constant work of locals, including orchard sprayers, to prevent further fire damage.

“A lot of my frustration is that the fire was coming all day, and a lot could have been done in preparation to put down fire lines and water down some of the land and protect the houses the fire was heading for. I never saw anything being done to prepare except by the private individuals using whatever resources we had,” Kretz said. “I saw firsthand the lack of management and communication from the command center. We had trained, capable and willing firefighters waiting to be put to work, only to have to sit and wait for orders. We had experienced locals with equipment available to stop the fires, but many were told they did not have permission.”

Kretz is proposing several changes to the way a wildfire is handled in the state in direct response to some of the things that happened during the Carlton Complex Fire.

House Bill 1237 would give locals in an active fire situation access to state lands to put down fire lines or clear brush and timber in order to suppress the fire.

House Bill 1508 would allow counties to choose to be exempt from the property fire assessment and instead collect the dollars locally to manage fires locally.

House Bill 1509 would require the state to use local contractors to fight a fire who are closest to that fire.

Kretz is also co-sponsoring other wildfire legislation sponsored by legislators in the 7th and 12th Legislative Districts.

“What needs to change the most, I think, is the current mindset that the state is 'managing' forest fires, instead of actually putting them out. More can and should be done by the state to prevent this kind of devastation. Our area will be rebuilding for nearly a decade. But we will, because we are resilient,” Kretz said.

The entire public hearing is available online at: http://ow.ly/IfhzP.


Washington State House Republican Communications