When Fire Comes Close
By Hilary Lundgren, Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition
Editor’s note: A version of this post originally appeared in The Nature Conservancy in Washington’s blog. This post has also appeared on the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network blog. Hilary Lundgren is the Director of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition and is both a member of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. This post is about her experience during the Suncrest Fire in August of 2016.
On a Saturday afternoon in late August, I was sitting on the porch editing the community After the Fire Resource Guide when my neighbor yelled, “What’s up with the flames over the road?” Within a few seconds, I received a call from a friend who just moved to town asking, “Do we need to be worried about smoke? What do we do? Is this normal?”
After a quick call to the local fire district, it was clear that things were not looking good. A wildfire was threatening homes.
Early in my career I spent time digging line, working on an engine and spraying water. In other words, I have spent a decent amount of time on the ground, engaging with fire on the landscape. In my relatively new position with the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition (CWSC) and as a member of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net), my work has been largely community focused—assisting individuals to prepare families, homes, landscapes and businesses for the inevitable wildfire. None of my previous fire experience really prepared me for the way a single ember could turn a community upside down. The moment I heard that ‘it’ was happening, I froze. Then I cried.
Now what? Was our community ready? Was I ready?
We had put a lot of time and energy into preparations before the fire. Now, it was time to trust the work of the landowners as the incident played out and begin our during the fire work. I took a deep breath, collected myself, packed up my computer and headed down to the fire station.
When I arrived, the fire district Auxiliary was in full force: answering phones, preparing food for the firefighters, and sharing information. The power was out for many Chumstick area residents and the cell tower had been destroyed. A significant segment of the Leavenworth area residents and visitors were desperate for information. As residents called or stopped by the station, we signed them up for the Chelan County Emergency Alert system to be notified via text, voicemail, or email of any evacuation or shelter in place notices (residents were still able to receive texts at this time). We shared Incident Management Team and Emergency Management notifications and fire status updates on social media to keep our community as informed as possible. By evening the winds had died down and fire behavior was changing accordingly.
On Sunday morning the community remained on high alert and many residents were still seeking additional information. The Coalition took the opportunity to distribute Chelan County Special Needs Registry sign-up forms. This registry allows emergency responders to identify and notify those who may require additional assistance in the event of an emergency. The Coalition also distributed evacuation guides and evacuation level notices (in English and Spanish) at local area churches and the American Red Cross shelter. At each distribution stop at least one person knew of someone who would benefit from registering with the Special Needs Registry. Many of the local churches also serve areas outside of the Leavenworth area (Peshastin, Monitor, Cashmere and Wenatchee) and were able to distribute informational materials to Hispanic communities throughout their rural congregations.
With smoke in the air, CWSC began to receive calls and photos from landowners who were immediately taking action to reduce their wildfire risk. Residents were raking pine needles off of their roof, cleaning gutters, and removing fuels from around their home. (They wanted to know when CWSC, in partnership with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, would be offering their next fuel reduction and chipping cost-share program!)
As the fire moved away from homes and into the wildlands the community began to feel a sense of relief. CWSC worked with the fire district to distribute After the Fire door hangers (created by FAC Learning Network members). The Incident Management Team hosted a community meeting where they shared the progress of their efforts. The number of organizations and fire-centric entities and organizations present at the meeting (US Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources, NOAA, CCFD3 and Auxiliary members, National Weather Service, Burlington Northern Railway, Red Cross, Chelan County Public Utility District, Cascadia Conservation District, Chelan-Douglas Health District, Chelan County Roads Department, as well as many others) demonstrated the success of interagency coordination. The fire district Chief noted that in over his 20 year fire career, he has never had an incident run so smoothly. Residents were given many accolades for doing their work – preparing their homes and landscapes – but above all creating a space for responders to do their job safely and effectively.
At the meeting, CWSC and Cascadia Conservation District were able to share After the Fire resource guides and informational pamphlets generated by the FAC Learning Network and NOAA (and even a few pages from the draft Leavenworth area After the Fire Resource Guide that we were working on when the fire broke out). CWSC took the opportunity to remind residents that the work is far from over. Even though the flames were no longer at our doorstep, a change in weather conditions combined with our changed landscape still posed a potential risk. CWSC also stressed the importance of contacting insurance agents to verify flood insurance policies.
As I reflect over the last few days, the principles of the prescribed fire 4 Rights Campaign launched by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Pacific Region (shared by fellow FAC Net member Bill Tripp) keep coming to mind. The 4 rights (Right People, Right Place, Right Time, and Right Choice) can easily be translated to the success of this wildfire incident:
- Right People: Interagency and community organization coordination, communication, and support resulted in safe and effective response; firefighters from CCFD3 and other local fire districts were prepared and well trained; CWSC’s connections with community partners allowed us to share information faster and support those seeking assistance.
- Right Place: Work done by the residents resulted in conditions that reduced the risk of wildfire to homes, as well as creating defensible space for responders.
- Right Time: Weather conditions played a significant role in fire behavior and allowed responders to conduct burnout operations, resulting in a low to moderate severity burn.
- Right Choice: Individuals who have taken steps to prepare themselves, their organizations, and community are moving steadily toward becoming a fire adapted community.
Today as I write this, the weather is cool and clouds are in the air. Firefighters are rehabbing their tools and refueling their engines and their bodies for the next incident. The plume has turned into a few occasional puffs of smoke. Organizations are assessing the post fire impacts on the landscape to homeowners and the community.
With each conversation and each action, we will learn, we will share, and we will continue to prepare. Maybe next time I won’t cry.