Washington’s 2014 wildfire season saw the largest fire in recorded state history—the Carlton Complex fire, which burned over 250,000 acres of land. This year experts predict conditions are ripe for a similar, if not worse, season. Causes for concern include the warmest winter on record, an extremely low snowpack (nine percent of normal) and emergency drought conditions in three regions of the state.
The wildland team of Eastside Fire and Rescue—those who fight the wildfires—are taking the prediction very seriously and prepping for a long season, all while hoping for the best. Four members of the team sat down with Reflections to reflect on their careers, last year’s fire season and the possibility of another record-breaking year.
What compelled you to become a fireman? Years ago my father was a volunteer fireman, and he exposed me to the lifestyle. It turns out there are few jobs out there where you really feel like on a daily basis you are making an impact. Here we do. You show up at the doorstep and have no idea what your day is going to entail. Sometimes it’s simple tasks; sometimes it’s life-changing events.
And why volunteer for the wildland team? It intrigued me because it was a new set of challenges, and I knew a number of people on the team. So I volunteered and loved it ever since.
What do you expect this year, when predictions are for a dry and active season? They talk about the snowpack being seven percent of what it normally is. There are a lot of areas— Wenatchee, Leavenworth, Cashmere—all of those places rely on the water that comes through the Wenatchee River, which is fed by snowpack, so one could speculate that it’s going to be dry. When it’s dry, it usually burns a little more. Beyond that who really knows. You can read Farmers’ Almanac, but beyond two or three weeks, you can’t tell.
What was the most impactful thing you remember from the Carlton Complex fire? Just the size. When we first rolled into base camp, you could see for miles—both east and west, as far as you could see—all one fire. It was an eye-opening experience. I’ve never seen that before; there were smoke clouds a mile in the air and four miles wide. You don’t normally see that. … That fire exploded in such a short time; overnight 120,000 acres went in nine hours.
What does it feel like to be driving toward a fire like that when everyone else is trying to leave? You really fall back on your training and preparation. You follow systematic schemes on what to do. … But if it doesn’t make you nervous and cautious, you might be doing the wrong thing. You want to approach it with open eyes.
Training Coordinator, Engine Boss, Public Information Officer and Section Chief of Washington Incident Management Team
Your position is slightly different. Can you describe your role? Part of my job is to interact with the public, the media and the local politicians. I’m there to decipher to the public—not tell them everything is going to be OK—but that we are doing the best we can do with the resources we have and give them a plan. We bring in the experts to explain what they’re doing. Sometimes you get a little beat up because emotions come into play. You have to have a great deal of empathy.
Are you concerned about the predictions this year? We’re dealing with Mother Nature. The weather forecasters are good about trends and can forecast out a ways, but we’ve been in the same situation where we’ve been told this is going to be the worst fire season ever, and the next thing you know it rains seven feet in June, and you have a mild July and mild August, and there are just a few fires.
What was the most impactful thing you remember from the Carlton Complex fire? I was there right from the beginning. My team got called, and at first it was a 65-acre fire here and 1,017-acre fire there. We were managing four different fires, and then to see the transformation in 72 hours. It quickly became plume-dominated, and you could see the smoke go 40,000 feet in the air. It basically created its own weather in there. More importantly though was to watch the citizens that live in the town. The fear in their eyes. And they wanted help. We had some resources to help, but if you remember, at the same time there was a big fire in the Kittitas area, multiple fires in Oregon. Resources were literally coming in from New Jersey, Colorado, Florida, all over the country, fire engines were driving across the country to come and help with this.
Is there anything you would like the general public to know about those types of situations? I would like the public to know that when they have a house fire and they see six fire trucks, two ladder trucks, two battalion chiefs in this one area, they say, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a whole bunch of people actively trying to put the fire out.’ On the more dynamic wildland side, strike teams are different. There may be five engines on 5,000 acres, and they go to the worst spot to try to stop the fire. So at times it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of people. At the Carlton Complex, there were 1,100 firefighters, but when you spread those people out over 250,000 acres, it doesn’t appear things are being done. But there are tasks being done. People are assigned to look for other initial fires; there may be a time when it looks like these firefighters are doing absolutely nothing, when in fact they are in standby mode so it doesn’t become 350,000 acres. The firefighters all have a job and task to do and some of it is actively engaged and some of it is in standby mode.
Task Force Leader
What compelled you to become a fireman? Rick and I actually started together when we were 16 years old; he was at a station five miles down the road from where I was. I had a good mentor and thought it was interesting. I went into the Air Force as a firefighter and then got out and came to Eastside Fire and Rescue.
What was the Carlton Complex fire like for you? I spent two weeks there. Hurried is a good word. We were there predominately in two-week cycles, and we weren’t even going back to camp during that time. We slept in the city park with one outhouse. We were scrambling the whole time, going from one house to another house.
What stood out most about the experience? The sheer size and complexity. You had all kinds of fuel sources and geographically it was huge.
How do you cope with the emotion of it all? In the fire service you can be emotional, but it’s not good to be too emotionally invested in every call. It burns you out pretty fast. That being said, I went to Alta Lake and the houses were all burned down and the families had nothing left. That was pretty sad. I’d be heartbroken. We’re just trying to stop the fire from getting to the next house.
What is it like interacting with the public during those kinds of fires? I remember during the big Taylor Bridge fire, we were camped at a grade school or middle school, and the community outpouring was amazing. First of all, a large portion of the community had lost everything, so there was an incredible outpouring for those individuals. But then when you see all the stuff that showed up for the firefighters who had been there for two weeks—it was small comforts. You couldn’t buy a cup of coffee in Cle Elum. But let me be clear: we don’t expect that. But we were still so grateful.
Kody Van Hoof,
What compelled you to become a fireman? My cousin is a firefighter, and I did a ride along with him once when I was younger. Then I started volunteering at Enumclaw, and now I’m here. I really like it because it’s the chance to do something different every day and really help people.
What’s been your most memorable experience so far? My very first deployment was to Table Mountain, and just to drive to Cle Elum and see the fire on the hill and then realize the complexity of it. I also remember how there was this little city of crew—night crew and day crew—and all the planning that goes into it was incredible. For that to be my first fire was a big eye-opener as to what wildland firefighting was about and what they can be.
Did you also participate in fighting the Carlton Complex fire? I was actually at another fire in Cheney at the time. But that whole season definitely sticks out because the need for resources was so great. Everything was being pulled to that region, and we were working on our fire and we were just running out of resources. The need was so great, and that stuck out in my mind for that fire season.
How hard is the job on your body? It’s extremely taxing on your body; there’s 100 degree heat, and you’re hiking around in long sleeves and pants all day. You have to be fit.