WASHINGTON — For the first time in state history, the state is asking citizen volunteers to help fight wildfires.
With resources strained across the region, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources on Aug. 20 sent out a press release asking Washintonians to donate time and services in support of professional fire crews.
The DNR is especially interested in hearing from those who have heavy equipment such as backhoes and bulldozers, and those who are qualified to operate heavy equipment. It helps to have a “red card” — wildland fire qualification — or “blue card” — heavy equipment qualification — but the DNR is considering setting up an opportunity to help otherwise qualified volunteers quickly get cleared for service.
DNR staff say that as the fires have ramped up, they’ve been inundated with offers of help from the public. That led them to set up two coordination centers, in the towns of Omak and Colville, where people can call, email, or show up to sign up for duty. Each station will be staffed during posted hours with DNR coordinators who will sign up volunteers and contractors, determine where their assistance will be of most help, and arrange training in wildfire safety, where appropriate. Phone messages and emails can be submitted and will be reviewed during hours the coordination centers are not staffed.
Beginning 7 a.m. Friday, Aug. 21, coordinators will review citizens’ offers for resources and direct them to where they can be most beneficial and without jeopardizing the safety of firefighters and the public. Even if a member of the public has sufficient credentials, deployment to a wildfire will depend on the availability of professional firefighter staff to accompany, direct, and ensure the safety of everyone concerned. The DNR staff encourage volunteers to call in advance.
This year’s wildland fire season has been extraordinarily bad — currently, massive fires are burning across northern Washington and southern British Columbia and Alberta, and the Okanagan County towns of Twisp and Omak are threatened. As of Friday morning, the Northwest Large Fire Map showed 28 active large fires in Oregon and Washington. None of these have been fully contained, and there are many other smaller fires burning throughout the Northwest and Southwest.
The Okanagan Complex, a cluster of about seven fires east of the town of Omak is one of the most serious of the large fires. On Friday morning, the fire, which was caused by lightning, was only 38 percent contained, and had burned more than 91,000 acres. So far, 33 structures have been destroyed, and 145 residences are currently threatened.
Earlier this week, three members of a U.S. Forest Service engine crew, Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31, perished near the town of twisp.
Though the fires are far from Pacific County, locals are feeling the impact in various ways. Some Peninsula residents have family members in the affected areas, and in some cases, family members’ properties are directly threatened or on notice for evacuation. On Wednesday, a group of about five locals loaded chainsaws, shovels, generators and other tools into their trucks and headed north to Omak to help relatives prepare their properties for the rapidly advancing fireline.
A Chinook Observer photographer would like to talk to any other locals who are currently preparing to leave for one of the fires. Call 360.642.8181
To volunteer for fire duty, contact staff at the state’s two coordination centers. To expedite the processing service, potential volunteers should contact DNR coordinators at the above phone numbers or email addresses in advance with their desired role, existing fire qualifications, location, and contact information.
Omak: Jay Guthrie
Omak City Hall
2 Ash St. N
Colville: Julie Sacket
Washington State Department of Transportation
440 N Hwy 395