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Fire Crews Prep for Wildfire Season

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Wildfire season has begun in the Inland Northwest.

The Spokane area hasn’t yet seen any major fires, but crews from several Spokane County fire departments know it’s only a matter of time. They’re practicing how they’ll react when they get the call. This week they’ve been holding drills on a hilly, forested residential lot in the south valley. While we were there observing, we heard at least one dispatcher on the radio beckon crews to a brush fire north of town.

Wildfire memories run deep. People in central and eastern Washington still refer to the destructive fire seasons of 2014 and 2015. Spokane Valley Fire Captain Paul Kimball remembers two fires in particular from last August.

“As we saw last year with the Wellesley fire and the Yale fire, they both occurred on the same day. Their peak fire activity was only a few hours in length and yet we had numerous structures lost. We had hundreds and hundreds of acres burned," Kimball said. "We may not see fires with as large acreage as in the large complexes where there are hundreds of thousands of acres, we may not see that as much, but we can still have significant fire growth on specific days.”

During this practice session, Kimball is instructing crews from his own department, from Spokane County Fire District 9 and the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

“We're Spokane Valley firefighters: we were hired to be structure firefighters, go to car accidents, hazmat, medical calls. We weren’t hired to be wildland firefighters. That wasn’t why we took the job," Kimball said. "But, as part of our job as firefighters, we protect homes in the urban interface areas. So we still need to know how to dig hand lines, how to spray water, how to run chainsaws.”

So Kimball and his training team, including Todd Bellefeuille, put the group through a few drills to allow them to practice skills they haven’t used since last summer.

“So we’re going to run it like a regular incident. 94’s going to be first on scene,” Bellefeuille said.

In this exercise, crews respond to a mock fire, bringing in large packs with hoses and connecting them as they would during a wildfire call.  

“Anything that’s in yellow ribbon is fire. Ok? Spray but spray lightly so we don’t burn through the water real quick,” he said.

The crews come in one at a time as if arriving in a staggered wave. The first team hauls a hose from its tanker truck up the hill near the area where the fire would be burning. Then a second crew comes in with hand tools and attaches its hose to the first. Then a crew from another jurisdiction arrives. A two-person team with picks and shovels is assigned to put out a spot fire across the road. Small groups work their way up the hill as they would during a real fire.

The commanders from the different jurisdictions communicate with each other and their teams in the field.

“We have multiple starts. There’s additional fires up the roadway here,” said voices on the walkie talkie.

This is exactly the type of day when you might see a wildfire here: temperatures in the 80s, low humidity, a bit of a breeze. Add a little lightning and a stronger wind and you have the ingredients for a destructive fire. The brush is abundant, not  surprising given the wet winter and spring. With warmer days the vegetation is drying out. During another drill, the crews light a low intensity fire on the hill so they can practice putting it out. Teams break out the chainsaws to practice in case fallen trees block their paths.

Rick Freier is a veteran Spokane Valley firefighter who says training sessions like this are always valuable.  

“There’s some finer points that you always take from one of these classes. We practice those fine motor skills, those little things that we do," Freier said. "And in this particular environment, the homeowner has allowed us up here to do this. It’s invaluable, because you can’t see 40 feet because there’s a hill with a little crest and some bushes, so radios are important.”

He says there’s one other bit of preparation the Spokane Valley Fire Department has done to help them when they’re dispatched to a fire within their jurisdiction.

“We actually, a few years back, went and triaged the homes before the fire and we listed them as green, which we can help, yellow, we’ll think about it if we have resources, and red, this one can be considered lost," Freier said.  "And so those can open people’s eyes when we start saying we’re not going to protect your home. We can’t guarantee the lives of the firefighters. We can’t guarantee we’re going to stop this fire from taking out your house. So we have to make a call. We’re going to save the ones we can and the way they help us is by taking time, educating themselves and getting this information and putting a little bit of it to work.”

Freier urges homeowners, especially those in the urban-suburban interface, to work with their local fire departments check their homes and properties to minimize their chances of being overrun by wildfire.