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Saturday, March 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Fire season could hit close to home this year

Seattle Times staff reporter

Enlarge this photoBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT

A "prescribed burn" last weekend near Brookings, Ore., was set to clear out underbrush, but winds and dry conditions caused it to flare up and burn about 10 acres of forestland before being controlled.

In any semblance of a normal winter, Oregon's Coast Range is a dank, green realm drenched by frequent rains. But on Monday, a mound of clear-cut slash that had smoldered through the winter suddenly came to life, burning through 35 acres southeast of Coos Bay.

Dozens of other small fires, some set to clear brush, have flared up in recent weeks, including 36 in Washington, in an early taste of what may be a tough fire season across the Pacific Northwest.

Fire officials hope for a cool, wet spring, but they warn that residents on the east and west slopes of the Cascades should be aware of the wildfire potential.

"People think of wildfires as these big, huge things that happen in Eastern Washington or California, and that you don't have a great loss of homes on the west side. We need to change that thinking," said Josie Williams, a spokeswoman for Eastside Fire & Rescue, which serves an area that includes Issaquah, North Bend and Sammamish.

Much of the vegetation that flourishes west of the Cascades is less adapted to drought than the plants that thrive in the drier eastern reaches of the Pacific Northwest. In years when moisture is scarce, the western brush may dry out more quickly, and stressed fir and cedar trees, for example, exude volatile resins, according to Mike Fitzpatrick, a federal fire official.

These forests burn much less frequently than those in Eastern Washington, yet blazes on the west side can be spectacular. "Once you get something going on the west side, you have almost unlimited fuel ... they can be some of the worst to fight," Fitzpatrick said.

The risks of this year's fire season prompted Gov. Christine Gregoire last week to issue a declaration that authorizes the call-up of the Washington National Guard to help fight fires. If needed, up to 500 men and women in the Guard are ready to join in the firefighting, according to Joe Shramek, a state Department of Natural Resources official.

But the state is hoping to avoid a bigger call-up of soldiers for firefighting duty. The Washington National Guard is just winding down its biggest mobilization since World War II. It sent more than 3,000 soldiers to Iraq for a year. The plan is to spare them — as well as other units that might be called to active duty — the added burden of firefighting, according to Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg.

Even without the Guard, a substantial firefighting labor pool will be available unless fires break out all at once across a wide region of the West.

Federal agencies deploy some of their own workers, including dozens of Hotshot crews that tackle some of the most difficult firefights.

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The Washington Department of Natural Resources has two 20-person fire crews that work on state or private forestlands. The department also uses 500 inmates picked by the state Department of Corrections. "We train them and use them very heavily on the west side as well as the east side," Shramek said.

But the biggest source of labor now comes from private contractors, most of whom are based in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1998, the number of privately employed firefighters has tripled to 298 20-person crews ready to respond to state and federal fire call-ups around the U.S.

The private-sector growth was stoked by a series of major fire years, when federal spending ballooned to more than $1 billion a year before dropping off to less than $800 million last year.

The quality of the private crews has varied dramatically from experienced, well-respected contractors to crews that have raised safety concerns. And government oversight has struggled to keep pace.

Thirteen firefighters hired by private contractors died in traffic accidents while traveling to and from fires in 2002 and 2003, and there were fears that others might perish in the woods.

"If we don't improve the quality and accountability of this program, we are going to kill a bunch of firefighters," wrote Joseph Ferguson, a U.S. Forest Service deputy incident commander, in a November 2002 memo.

Since 2003, the Oregon Department of Forestry, which oversees private contractors, has stepped up investigations with an expanded staff. During last year's fire season, these investigations found numerous violations, including crews with underage firefighters, according to Don Moritz, an Oregon Department of Forestry official. He also said some crews, when contacted about whether they could respond to fires within two hours, lied about their locations to get the extra assignments.

By the end of the 2004 fire season, 61 of the 298 private crews had their contracts terminated, or dropped out as investigations progressed, Moritz said.

This year, under a new system, the private outfits with the best performance and safety records will get the first call-ups to fight fires, Moritz said.

The scope and timing of these call-ups will likely be keyed to the arrival of dry lightning, which is the main ignition source for fires east of the Cascades. Intense lightning storms can spark dozens of fires within a few hours, and an absence of lightning — even in a very dry year — can make for a relatively calm fire season.

On the west side, dry lightning is a much less common event, and humans are the primary source of fires, according to state and federal fire officials. The big concern is a fire that might take hold in a forest and then race into housing developments that now climb up more and more Northwest hillsides.

Williams, of Eastside Fire & Rescue, is working to raise homeowner awareness about what can be done to reduce fire risks. Her department has encouraged homeowners to create a defensible space around houses that is free of the most volatile vegetation, and also to shift away from roofs made of cedar shakes, which can act like kindling.

Williams said Eastside Fire & Rescue already had a close call in August 2003, when a fire in the Carnation area threatened several hundred homes spread along the hillsides.

"We were just short of a state mobilization and were real fortunate that we didn't lose any homes," Williams said.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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