Fire officials need help to prevent wildfires over Labor Day weekend

'We are hopeful that we won't have the sort of the significant tragedies we had last year'

Fire officials are asking for the public’s help in not adding to the growing list of wildfires burning across Washington state by being careful in their activities over Labor Day weekend.

“If more fires happen — we’re stretched thin and we already have too many fires on the landscape —we’re going to be in trouble,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said during a visit to Yakima on Thursday.

Nearly a year ago, hurricane-force winds and a hot, dry landscape combined to spark more than 70 fires statewide in just a day and a half.  Franz said during the 2020 Labor Day Firestorm, 620,000 acres of land were burned in 72 hours.

“We saw one fire — the Cold Springs Fire— fire burn 100,000 acres in just about five hours,” Franz said. “We lost the life of a little boy as his family tried to outrun that fire and then we saw the town of Malden burned down. Those images will be seared in my mind forever.”

Franz said while this wildfire season has been worse, with a hotter and drier landscape than last year, they are not expecting any hurricane-force winds.

“We still remain concerned and on high alert, but we are hopeful that we won’t have the sort of the significant tragedies we had last year,” Franz said.

Fire officials are asking the public to avoid starting outdoor fires or parking vehicles on grassy areas. They’re also asking people to make sure dirt bikes and SUVs have operating spark arrestors and abide by burn restrictions.

Another way people can help is by creating defensible space around their homes: reduce dry fuels, clean roof tops and gutters, limb up trees and remove dead branches.

“Hopefully, if people can make this Labor Day, the safest Labor Day possible for their families, they can make it the safest Labor Day possible for firefighters,” Franz said.

Franz said it’s especially important that the state not add to its already long list of wildfires because they’re not in as good of a position to quickly respond to new fires this time around.

Just before Labor Day 2020, firefighters were only battling one major fire in the state. Franz said when fires started popping up statewide, the state Department of Natural Resources was able to quickly redirect resources to respond to new incidents.

As of Thursday, firefighters were already fighting eight significant fires across the state, including the Schneider Springs Fire burning northwest of Naches — the largest uncontained fire statewide.

Franz said in addition to more wildfires and firefighting resources spread thin, they’re also facing a growing shortage of personnel due to a spike in COVID-19 cases among firefighters. During the first year of the pandemic, DNR had three personnel test positive for the virus and none of them made it to the fire line.

During this year’s wildfire season, DNR has seen at least 50 confirmed cases, some of which reached firefighters’ camps.

“In the last three to four weeks, we have had more incidents of firefighters testing positive and having to quarantine whole teams within a camp to prevent the spread,” Franz said. “In addition to that, we’ve had to turn fire teams away.”

Franz said recently, a team of 20 firefighters arrived at an incident, only to be sent back home when four of them tested positive for COVID-19.

“We need more firefighters and we have to say, ‘No, thank you. You need to go home,” Franz said. “It has made this fire season, which is already challenging, even more challenging.”

All DNR employees — including wildland firefighters — must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. Franz said they’ve been sending teams into fire camps to help provide COVID-19 vaccines for those firefighters.

“Frankly, we’re just trying to keep them alive; not only protect them from fires, but also protect them from COVID,” Franz said.