Firefighters’ worries grow as hot, dry weather conditions persist

EVERETT — Firefighters are growing increasingly fearful that brush and grass fires will threaten homes across Snohomish County in this summer of hot dry days and windy afternoons.

The fear is growing in suburban areas with each passing day of parched conditions.

“It’s as bad as it can be out there,” said Travis Hots, chief of the Arlington Rural and Getchell fire districts.

Although Friday saw some rain and the weekend could bring a few showers, fire officials say it won’t reduce the danger. Based on long-term weather forecasts, they are urging people to comply with the burn ban they predict will be in place well into the fall.

“All indications are we are going to have a very bad August,” said Snohomish County Fire District 5 Chief Merlin Halverson.

The seasoned firefighter from Sultan said brush fires this summer easily can spread to structures and structure fires just as easily can become brush fires that can threaten entire neighborhoods.

A case in point was a fire Sunday that started in a motor home before destroying two cars and two motorcycles. The fire jumped into the trees and reached two neighbors’ properties before firefighters were able to get the upper hand.

Some fires initially called in as 15 feet by 15 feet can consume an acre by the time firefighters reach them, Hots said.

Brush fires already have been deadly this summer.

In June, David Hagaman, 86, died of smoke inhalation and other injuries while trying to put out a brush fire on the Tulalip Indian Reservation. His body was found down a steep embankment after crews extinguished the blaze in the Priest Point area, along Meridian Ave N.

Fire District 4 in Snohomish battled two major brush fire incidents within the past week. One on Monday involved multiple fires that bled together near the Bickford exit of U.S. 2, Deputy Chief Mike Gatterman said. The highway fire took 6,400 gallons of water to extinguish, plus firefighting foam, he said.

Another fire Tuesday, fueled by tinder-dry blackberry bushes, came close to homes near the Snohomish Aquatic Center.

Both days’ fires started in the afternoon, when winds were blowing. The cause of the fires is unknown. Snohomish has had 27 brush-type fires so far this year, compared to eight by this time last year.

“They seem to be way bigger than they used to be,” Gatterman said.

“We are also finding people who are still burning their trash and yard waste in spite of all the warnings,” Snohomish Fire Chief Ron Simmons said.

In south Snohomish County, there have been 140 brush and grass fires so far this year compared to 107 all of last year. On July 8, families in a neighborhood east of Everett were warned they could have to leave their homes when a stubborn brush fire in a powerline easement spread.

Halverson, the Sultan chief, hopes people will be mindful of the extraordinarily dry conditions.

“They don’t just need to take extra precautions with their homes,” he said. “They need to take extra precautions with their habits.”

That includes cigarettes, burning of waste and operating machinery, including cars, chain saws and lawn mowers. Heat from catalytic converters, for instance, can start fires when cars are parked on grass.

Eric Andrews also still is seeing people illegally burning where he works in Fire District 7 in Clearview and District 26 in Gold Bar.

Fireworks still are showing up in District 7, Andrews said. He coordinates wildfire response for this part of the state. Local crews have been summoned for wildfires outside of Snohomish County six times so far this season.

Every year during the dry season, fire departments in Snohomish County automatically start sending more rigs to brush fires, he said. They make that change once the grass turns brown.

Fire District 7 has seen 54 brush fires so far this year, compared to 16 at this time last year.

In Gold Bar, crews started a campaign called “Defensible Space?” to encourage people to protect their homes. That means trimming trees, cleaning out gutters and keeping wood piles away from the house.

“That’s really what’s going to help us if we have something here,” Andrews said.

Signs are posted around town.

“We even put up bigger signs,” Andrews said. “Hopefully people are reading them.”

Firefighters are being told there might be no real relief until September, maybe October, Andrews said. Winds remain a concern. If a wind-driven fire starts here now, it could be just as bad as any seen in Eastern Washington, he said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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