Several rigs called to fight a South Hill-area brush fire this month wouldn’t have been available to help put out the 20-acre blaze just hours earlier.
At least three of the Pierce County units had been fighting brush fires in Eastern Washington, and were put back in service locally just in time July 13 to help with the South Hill fire, Key Peninsula Fire Chief Guy Allen said.
“Had the timing of that been off, if those resources had still been deployed on the east side of the mountains, we wouldn’t have had them in Pierce County to respond to the fire,” said Allen, emergency management coordinator for the Pierce County Fire Chiefs Association. “We need to be able to take care of our own.”
The hot, dry summer means deployments of Pierce County firefighters across the state to help fight wildfires have ramped up this year, at the same time departments are being cautious about sending crews far from home.
“Certainly that (weather) causes fire chiefs to be a little uneasy about sending fire resources out of their districts,” Allen said. “The ability to deploy has been challenged, but the desire to deploy is still there.”
Between June 28 and July 20, Allen said, Pierce County fire departments sent 14 rigs and roughly 40 people to help in Eastern Washington at blazes such as the Sleepy Hollow fire in Wenatchee, and one in Douglas County.
“We may have had half this amount by this time last year,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pierce County has used the same brush engines, water tenders and other rigs it deployed to fight 500 brush fires at home from June 1 to July 20, compared to 145 during that time last year, according to the South Sound 911 Fire Services Division.
At least four of those fires, including the blaze in the South Hill area, were big enough that county wildfire teams were mobilized.
Central Pierce Fire & Rescue responded to the South Hill fire in undeveloped land near Emerald Ridge High School.
The crews got assistance from Key Peninsula Fire Department, Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One, the Browns Point-Dash Point Fire Department, West Pierce Fire & Rescue, South Pierce Fire & Rescue, Graham Fire & Rescue, Orting Valley Fire & Rescue and East Pierce Fire & Rescue.
It took all that help to contain the blaze, which got within 150 yards of residential property.
“We don’t have the resources to fight a 20-acre brush fire,” Central Pierce spokesman Ed Hrivnak said. “A big fire like that, I can’t say enough how much that helped us, having mutual aid.”
If several of the units that had just returned from Eastern Washington had still been unavailable, Central Pierce might have needed help within the region, which includes King, Mason, and Kitsap counties.
If more resources are needed than are available within the region, departments can ask for statewide mobilization, coordinated through the State Fire Marshal’s office.
In practice, Allen said he remembers only one a time that state mobilization has happened in Western Washington, for a Shelton fire in 2012.
“There are just more available physical resources and staffing resources on the west side of the state than the east side of the state,” he said.
The state reimburses departments if they help with fires across the state, and all help is voluntary. Departments are not obligated to send their people or units.
“The extremely dry season we are experiencing this year has made it somewhat difficult to obtain resources compared to years past,” Deputy State Fire Marshal Lysandra Davis said via email.
“We’ve needed to reach out more to state, federal, and contract firefighting resources to staff some of the state fire mobilizations.”
Central Pierce was asked to help in Eastern Washington during Fourth of July weekend, but like other departments, wasn’t able to send assistance.
“We just didn’t have any resources,” Hrivnak said.
He said he thinks the worst of the fire season is yet to come.
“We’re going to need our fire engines and our brush rigs and our equipment and our people,” he said. “It’s a very busy summer when it comes to brush fires.”