Memories of fires past, fuel current legislative efforts

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(As published in the Omak Chronicle, 3/13/19)

Science tells us the sense of smell is most closely associated to memory.

It doesn't take much more than a waft of wood smoke to transport me back to the summers of 2014 and 2015, and even last year.  Like so many others throughout northeast Washington, the memories for me are vivid: a mélange of charred livestock carcasses, wind-blown fire racing over the horizon, exploding treetops, sirens, flashing lights, homes succumbing to flames despite herculean efforts, tears of individuals, strength and resiliency of our communities.

In addition, for me personally, countless hours driving from one site to the next, on the phone trying to coordinate more resources, giving updates as best I could, and consoling lifelong friends who had lost everything.

As Sheila Corson and other Chronicle staff wrote in Firestorm 2014. The Story of the Carlton Complex Wildfire: 

“State Rep. Joel Kretz, who lives about two hours away in Wauconda, still in Okanogan County, had just gotten home from the state capital in Olympia late Thursday night, July 17, and telephone calls were coming his way about the fire.  Although it's just outside his district, he headed for Brewster to join the Gebbers crews.

“When he got there, workers were rushing around like bees.  They drove Caterpillar bulldozers – known as 'Cats' – and filled orchard sprayers with water.  Kretz climbed into a pickup truck with Jon Wyss, the company's governmental affairs specialist, and rode into the conflagration to watch the firefight first-hand.

“Tractors cut fire lines.  Using ATV-mounted pesticide sprayers filled with water, orchard workers doused everything in sight.  A water truck took one last trip across the line, and everything shut down.

“Rep. Kretz stood with about 50 people, watching the fire swarm to the line.  The tall flames reflected in their eyes.  They held their collective breath.  The line held.  The fire didn't jump.”

While Brewster was saved that day, the catastrophic wildfires of the past half-decade left an indelible mark on all of us.  That mark now serves as intense fuel to see things change.

In 2017, I sponsored legislation requiring the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to enter into preemptive wildfire suppression agreements with local contractors as well as landowners.  The idea is to help keep small wildfires small by utilizing local contractors who know the area and have the necessary tools and skills to respond quickly.

While my proposal was signed into law, we didn't stop there.

This year, to build upon our earlier successes, I'm sponsoring House Bill 1940.  Once notified of an active wildfire, my bill would give DNR one hour to determine if it has the resources readily available for deployment.  If, during the first 48 hours, DNR determines that non-DNR resources are able to respond more quickly to the wildfire, they must be allowed to deploy.

This new bill bridges the gap between having local, private contracts and resources in place, and making the actual decision to use them.

Another success from 2017 was legislation directing DNR to prioritize forest health treatments to specific tracts of land in order give firefighters a geographic tool to stop fires from spreading.

What we saw in the Sinlahekin during the Carlton Complex fire was astonishing.  Unmanaged and untreated forestland was turned to moonscape.  The intensity of the heat burned everything to ash.

Yet, in certain tracts of land that had been managed – thinned, underbrush cleared, access points established, controlled burns utilized – the results were quite different.

With less undergrowth as fuel, and more space between healthier trees, the forest had a chance.  As I've taken several Puget Sound area lawmakers up to the Sinlahekin, the stark visual difference between the two has changed the minds of more than one. 

Legislation this year, House Bill 1784, continues our efforts to use proven forest treatments to provide the dual benefits of forest health and strategic wildfire response.  It also requires DNR to track treated areas and other relevant geographical features, and incorporate them into a geographical information system for use by fire response personnel.

The work to streamline our wildfire response and prevention, while putting maximum resources into both, continues.  Our collective hope is that the wildfire memories of the last few years remain just that – memories.

(Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, is on the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and serves as the minority leader.)

State Representative Joel Kretz, 7th Legislative District
335A Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(564) 888-2361 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000