People at a viewpoint overlooking the Columbia River watch the Eagle Creek wildfire in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, Oregon, last Monday. (Inciweb via AP)

Big NW wildfires pull Snohomish County firefighters, resources

EVERETT — Almost every summer lately has tested the limits of Washington’s wildfire-fighting resources.

This is the worst year in memory, said Eric Andrews, a fire chief in Gold Bar. Andrews leads a team of chiefs from five counties north of Seattle who decide how many crews and brush trucks can be spared when other places are overwhelmed by fire.

“We’re pretty much depleted,” Andrews said. “We’ve had to tell Oregon: ‘No, we’re sending all we can.’ ”

For the past month, devastating forest fires have forced Oregon to call for help from around the nation — “very hard, dusty, smoky work,” said Travis Hots, another Snohomish County fire chief who returned Wednesday from the Horse Prairie Fire near Eugene.

It’s straining resources even hundreds of miles away, the around Puget Sound region. Out of five strike teams based in the north Sound area, only a fraction of one team hasn’t been deployed. Those crews need to stay, Andrews said, in case things get out of hand closer to home.

More than 190,000 acres of Washington have been scorched in a dozen large wildfires that are still burning, according to a federal database. Millions more acres were ablaze in Idaho, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia. Add a breeze, and you’ve got a recipe for the ashy pink-gray smoke that cloaked the entire Pacific Northwest last week.

Smoke billowed across three borders into Washington, not to mention from within. For the second time this summer, a cloud veiled the sun for days. Many lifelong Washingtonians hadn’t seen anything like it since the ash from Mount St. Helens in 1980.

A torrid wildfire season has started to seem like an annual event in the Pacific Northwest. But the season is supposed to be done by September, Andrews said. If not, it can complicate the logistics. The start of the school year, for example, leaves firefighters without school gyms to sleep in, and without the volunteer help of high school students interested in forestry.

And it monopolizes the lives of firefighters.

“I think it’s really hard on families, the wives, the children,” Andrews said. “It’s not a year for war, but it’s pretty disruptive.”

Most of the crews are gone for up to two weeks at a time. Meanwhile at home, their coworkers put in longer hours to keep pace with local 911 calls that don’t stop.

It’s part of a larger trade-off.

“If we’re not willing to send our resources there, nobody’s going to want to send resources to us,” Andrews said. “But as things get drier here, we hold a little bit more back.”

Only one large wildfire has hit Snohomish County this summer, when 200 acres burned last month about 9 miles northeast of Darrington.

Last week, the National Weather Service alerted firefighters that the eastern slopes of the Cascades were extremely dry and ripe for ignition. Abundant lightning was in the forecast for southern Washington, along the Columbia River gorge, where more than 900 firefighters were already fighting the mammoth, human-caused Eagle Creek fire.

Fears of more dry thunderstorms near the lightning-sparked Jolly Mountain fire near Cle Elum put Andrews on edge last week. That fire has led to evacuations for hundreds of homes. Crews at the scene expect the flames won’t be extinguished until rain puts them out.

Snohomish has been one of the most generous counties in the state in sharing its wildfire resources, according to a list of how resources are deployed. Late last week, about 30 Snohomish County firefighters were deployed to neighboring states or counties.

Hots, the Getchell fire chief, spent a few days fighting wildfires near Klamath Falls, with hand-held tools because no heavy machinery could cross the harsh remote terrain. The sagebrush and rolling hills reminded him of the Okanogan countryside, and the fire that killed three Washington firefighters in 2015.

“I’d liken it to cutting fire line on the surface of the moon,” Hots said.

Then the Horse Prairie Fire broke out Aug. 27. It was a 50-acre fire when it was first reported in the late afternoon. By nightfall it was seven times that size. Hots was among the first of hundreds to respond, as the fire erupted into a 16,000-acre monster. Hots has been fighting wildfires since 1993. He’d never seen fire acting the way it did in Oregon: acres of timber eaten by flame in seconds. It does not take much wind to whip up a fire in bone-dry conditions.

“When the fire decides it’s going to pick up and run, we have escape routes (built with bulldozers) that are clearly established,” Hots said. Once he had to use one of those routes. Others had to drive for miles with almost zero visibility to escape danger.

“I wouldn’t call the situation chaotic, I would call it tense. It’s not like a situation where you’re running for your life,” he said. “It’s a very proactive approach, so it doesn’t turn into a situation where you have to drive erratically, with your hair on fire.”

For two weeks he worked alongside Oregon firefighters and loggers, and crews called in from Canada, California, Colorado, North Carolina and New Mexico.

“We’ve had major incidents in Snohomish County where people came from far and wide to help us,” he said. “That’s what we do here when someone else needs help. To get the job done we’re going to need to lean on our neighbors.”

On Saturday morning, Hots was scheduled to head back to Oregon for at least one more week, to lead a strike team in the Columbia Gorge.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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