Lt. Alex Hickey of North Kitsap Fire and Rescue on Tuesday was wrapping up a stint as division commander for an incident management team on the Sumner Grade Fire in Pierce County.
Hickey oversaw crews creating firelines either by bulldozer or by hand where the terrain demanded. Much of the fire had been knocked down, but it was still smoky with hotspots on the ground and trees burning from the inside out that needed to be felled by specialized teams.
“My biggest responsibility is making sure they have the tools they need and know what needs to be done,” Hickey said. “It’s kind of like being a coach.”
Before Sumner, Hickey worked five days on the 244th Command Fire in Graham. And in late August and early September, he spent two weeks down in California as part of an army of 14,000 firefighters battling the behemoth LNU Lightning Complex of fires north of San Francisco.
In all, Hickey’s been home in Poulsbo just five days since Aug. 21. “I think the plan is for me to go home tonight,” he said.
Hickey is one of dozens of firefighters from Kitsap County who have deployed over the summer to fight wildfires burning in Washington, Oregon and California.
A combination of drought, low humidity and high winds across the western United States has exacerbated typical fire season conditions resulting in massive wildfires that had consumed more than 4.6 million acres as of Monday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
“We haven’t seen fire conditions like this in decades,” said Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief John Oliver.
A three-person crew from Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue deployed to Oregon on Monday afternoon, according to spokeswoman Ileana LiMarzi, just the latest in a series of mobilizations of units and equipment from CKFR, South Kitsap Fire and Rescue, Bremerton Fire Department, North Kitsap Fire and Rescue, Poulsbo Fire Department and Bainbridge Island Fire Department.
The Puget Sound Region is one of nine regions that participate in a statewide mobilization plan to respond to wildfires and other public emergencies such as the 2015 Oso landslide.
The plan was developed in the wake of the October 1991 Spokane Fire Storm. Legislation authorized in 1994 provided reimbursement for fire districts from afar participating in coordinated efforts to save lives and homes in events that were too big for local or regional response. Fire agencies in Washington state also take part in inter-state mutual aid mobilizations.
The nature of wildfires has changed, said Chief Dan Smith of North Kitsap Fire and Rescue, who is also the state mobilization plan’s coordinator the South Puget Sound Region, which includes King, Pierce, Kitsap and Mason counties.
“I would say in the past four or five years, it’s changed dramatically,” Smith said, citing a recent increase in teams being sent outside the state as far as California. “It’s extremely rare for them to seek outside assistance and over the past four years, we’ve been there at least once or twice per year. That’s uncommon, almost unheard of, and it’s become a regular occurrence.”
Cyclical weather patterns, forest management practices and more people moving into the wildland-urban interface are all factors in the complex problem of wildfire management, Smith said.
Protecting the homefront
Kitsap fire departments send specially trained wildland firefighters who are part of their regular staff to join strike teams where and when they’re needed.
“We have a crew of probably 11 strike team members that can go,” said South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Jeff Faucett. “We have had them on deployment for the last six weeks in some shape or form.”
Faucet said one of his strike team leaders, Mick Lewis, has been gone for a month fighting wildfires in different locations.
Coordination among departments and regions ensures there are adequate resources to fight fires locally. Sometimes, when the call goes out, they have to say no.
“We’re going to help our neighbors, but our primary focus is protecting people back home,” Faucett said.
Over the Labor Day weekend, SKFR received aid from other departments in Kitsap and Pierce counties, as it tackled a housefire and three major brush fires over a couple of days. Two of the three brush fires broke out early the morning of Sept. 8, one on Orchard Avenue, one on Banner Road. A total of eight homes were evacuated but all were saved.
Fire season puts a strain on departments, and firefighters at home and on the road incur significant overtime. Expenses incurred by local departments because of wildfires are reimbursable under the state’s mobilization plan and inter-state agreements.
A crew from SKFR with other Kitsap firefighters was deployed Aug. 21 to the LNU Lightning Complex, a merging of several large wildfires that became a mega-fire storm. The three-person crew got back Sept. 3 and wasn’t home for 10 hours before they were sent to the Evans Canyon Fire in Eastern Washington.
Meanwhile in Oregon, another SKFR wildfire specialist was assigned to oversee COVID-19 protocol at a fire camp in central Oregon. The pandemic has added just another twist to an already challenging fire season, Smith said.
Fires a wake-up call
By Tuesday, the Sumner Grade Fire had burned roughly 500 acres but was 85% contained. Two homes, six outbuildings and a vehicle had been destroyed, but there were no injuries and many properties had been saved, thanks to the influx of firefighters from around the region, said Dina Sutherland, spokeswoman for East Pierce Fire & Rescue.
Fire officials say the Sumner Grade fire is a wake-up call for Western Washington.
“You’d never have thought you’d see a 500-acre fire in Bonney Lake. It’s unprecedented,” Smith said.
But if it can happen in Pierce County, it can happen in Kitsap.
This year’s combination of low humidity and high winds created an increased risk for wildfire, which is unusual west of the Cascades, Oliver said. He hopes the fires just across the county line will get people’s attention.
Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue for the past two years has held wildfire community meetings to tell residents how they can prepare for a wildfire in their backyards, not if, but when a major wildfire happens here.
“We’re not going to be able to go to every house,” Oliver said. “The citizens can help protect their homes, clearing brush away, clearing furniture off decks, cleaning your gutters and keeping your driveways clear so we can get in, and really prepare your house to be fire resilient.”
Find a video of the most recent class at ckfr.org, visit the website of Firewise USA, or visit Ready, Set, Go! to learn how you can prepare your home for wildfire.
Despite the tough conditions and long hours, Hickey is glad to be part of the widespread response to wildfires.
“This is going to sound corny, but it doesn’t feel like work,” he said. “Everybody out here loves what they do. It’s always been a passion of mine, so I feel great about it.”
Chris Henry reports on education and community news for the Kitsap Sun. Reach her at (360) 792-9219 or [email protected] Support coverage of local news by signing up today for a digital subscription.