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NE Washington Firefighters Learn About The Virtues of Bear Spray

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Doug Nadvornick/SPR
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Hear the longer version of Doug Nadvornick's story.

As people prepare to spend time in the woods this spring and summer, wildlife officials are warning them to be prepared for encounters with animals, in particular, bears.

Firefighters in one northeastern Washington county received a lesson this week on the virtues of bear spray.

The Dos and Don'ts of Dealing with Bears, from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

You’re more likely to run into a black bear than a grizzly bear in Washington, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for either, says Candace Bennett, a wildlife conflict specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Colville.

“So the general difference is not size and color. Black bears can be all different ranges of color and size can be deceiving as well," Bennett said. "Another thing is that distinguished hump of the grizzly bears. The hump is on the shoulder area, just kind of behind the neck. It's pretty distinguishable.”

They’re also different in the sizes and shapes of their ears and the shapes of their noses.

So if you encounter one of these magnificent creatures, what’s the best way to be prepared?

“Bear spray is far and away the best tool you can carry out into bear country with you,” said Robb Krehbiel, the Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the sponsors of this workshop at the fire station at Sacheen Lake, in southern Pend Oreille County. “It’s proven to be more effective than any sort of lethal control of bears when you’re in a bear encounter situation and it keeps the bears alive,”

Bear spray is a strong pepper spray. It comes in an aerosol can. Wildlife managers say it’s not only important to carry bear spray when you’re out in the wild. It helps if you also know how to use it. So these firefighters file outside and queue into three lines. About 10 yards in front of them is a cardboard cut out of a grizzly. The goal of this exercise is to practice shooting the bear with bear spray.

“So this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to count down, one, two, three and then you can spray," Bennett said as participants raised their aerosol cans. "Just a couple of quick spurts. All right. One. Two. Three. [sound of spraying] All right. Good job. Make sure to put the cap on.”

Washington State University extension agent Mike Jensen says it also helps to know what to do if you have a snafu and someone other than the bear gets a face full of spray.

“A small recommendation is to carry a sterile saline solution, at least for the eyes, to help protect the eyes," Jensen said. "Fresh air, a good breeze and time are really the friends of that person because it’s going to burn and sting for quite awhile.”

Jensen has developed a protocol for firefighters and emergency medical technicians, in case they get calls for bear spray adventures gone awry.

This was one of several training sessions this group has sponsored this spring in Pend Oreille County.

“The Selkirks have a small, but growing, population of grizzly bears. We’re seeing them get to a point of recovery that we’re really excited about, but that then brings a whole host of challenges with it," Krehbiel said. "So it’s important to talk to folks that live alongside these bears and make sure that they have the information and the tools that they need to live their lives safely and responsibly alongside grizzly bears.”