It’s highly unusual for Western Washington to need the state’s help putting out fires.
But in recent days it’s happened twice, including once in Pierce County, for an 80-acre brush fire burning in South Hill.
It’s just the third time in recent memory the state has mobilized for a fire in Western Washington, underscoring a busy fire season this year caused by hot, dry weather.
“Our guys have been running their tails off around the general area,” said Guy Allen, Key Peninsula fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the Pierce County Fire Chiefs Association.
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“You can only go so far before you have to call in other help,” he said Monday.
State mobilization happens when Washington organizes help from departments with firefighters and rigs they’re willing to share, and sends them to blazes in areas that have exhausted their own resources.
Eastern Washington, where fire departments generally have fewer rigs and staff, often needs help, Allen said.
He remembers state assistance being needed in Western Washington only three times:
▪ For a Shelton fire in 2012.
▪ For a blaze about three miles west of Matlock in Mason County that started Friday and scorched 150 acres and burned five homes.
▪ Most recently for the South Hill fire that started Saturday near Emerald Ridge High School.
State help is needed for the South Hill blaze because Pierce County was exhausting its resources by helping with the Mason County fire and with the fire near Emerald Ridge, Allen said.
He said he thinks one King County team working the Mason fire since Friday went straight from that blaze to help Monday in South Hill.
Crews had the fire contained about 1 p.m. Sunday, and as of Monday evening it had not reached any homes or caused injuries.
But the blaze remained big enough that officials were telling 7,600 people in the area to prepare for possible evacuation, just in case, said spokesman Eric Waters with Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One.
The fire started about 11:20 a.m. Saturday in an undeveloped are near 122nd Avenue East and Sunrise Parkway East.
The cause is under investigation.
Local, regional and state agencies — more than a dozen departments and about 60 firefighters — were working to put the blaze out, Waters said. Crews were cutting down large, unstable trees and working their way into the fire to extinguish it.
“The local resources just don’t have the experience and the capability of safely mitigating those large trees,” Waters said. “Also, we don’t have helicopter assets like the state does.”
Water drops from the air have been helping fight the fire.
Though the blaze is contained away from homes, it’s not safe to let the fire burn itself out because of the heavy timber inside the containment area, Waters said.
“Consider the difference between kindling and a 20-inch round log,” he said.
Without intervention, the fire could burn for months and possibly flare up enough to start growing again.
Even with the state’s help, it’ll take a few more days to extinguish the fire, and smoke will be visible for some time, Waters said.
The fire season has taxed local fire department resources throughout the summer. Pierce County dispatchers sent crews to 500 brush fires between June 1 and July 20, compared with 145 fires during the same time in 2014.
“We’re used to having a rainy May and June, and we really haven’t had much measurable rain since the first of May,” Allen said. “That certainly has contributed.”