Q&A: East Pierce fire chief talks about fighting wildfires in Eastern Washington

It takes a village – or more like several dozen – to fight the kind of fires burning in Central and Eastern Washington.

State officials estimated that about 2,000 firefighters from various agencies were working together last week to battle roughly 50 fires throughout the state.

Among those firefighters was a crew from East Pierce Fire & Rescue, a fire district that serves about 85,000 people in Bonney Lake, Sumner, Lake Tapps, South Prairie, Edgewood, Milton and nearby areas.

Earlier this month, the fire district deployed an engine and crew for four days to help fight a group of fires near Lake Spokane, East Pierce Chief Jerry Thorson said.

On July 15, that crew was sent back out to help fight a complex of fires near Goldendale, Thorson said. As of Thursday, the two-person team from East Pierce was still working to contain that group of fires, he said.

Thorson spoke with The News Tribune last week about the efforts to fight the raging wildfires, as well as how local agencies are able to assist.

Question: Why travel across the state to help fight these wildfires?

Answer: We all joined the fire service to help the public or to serve the public. When there’s a significant need like this and homes and properties in Eastern Washington are in danger, we want to do what we can.

Q: What kind of work are local firefighters doing to help battle the fires?

A: They’re using Pulaskis and axes to cut fire lines. Cutting a fire line is essentially cutting a clear space so the fire doesn’t burn across the grass, and those kinds of things. They have to cut a trench down to bare dirt – maybe 1 1/2 feet deep – to keep the fire from spreading.

Part of the challenge is the fire will spread via the roots, once it gets underground. They really have to get it down to bare dirt so it doesn’t cross the fire line and pop up on the other side.

Q: How does fighting wildfires like these vary from fighting a fire in, say, a building?

A: It’s completely different. First of all, it requires different training, different certification, different tools and equipment. And to be honest, they’re out there operating in a wilderness area where they don’t have the support that we may have for a structural fire. It’s hard work and requires a lot of people, if you think about working on a hillside in 100-degree temperatures.

Q: How does this affect the fire district’s operations at home?

A: We always keep one brush engine here at home to deal with our emergencies. We get reimbursement from the state when we do this kind of thing... the state covers us for when our members are traveling and working. Essentially, the fire district is made whole and we’re not sending our resources to Eastern Washington without being compensated.

Q: What do the local firefighters gain by doing this kind of work?

A: Part of it is doing our part to help out throughout the state, but probably a bigger benefit to our citizens in East Pierce is you really can’t match the benefit of these deployments from a training standpoint. It allows us to provide a better service to our constituents after an incident.