Governor pledges state’s help with fires
Thursday, September 13, 2012
WENATCHEE — Gov. Chris Gregoire today pledged two National Guard helicopters by tomorrow and two more soon after to help battle the fires burning in Chelan County.
But she told fire bosses for the Wenatchee Complex that additional resources, including firefighters and equipment, were hard to come by as wildfires rage across the western U.S. Canada.
She signed an emergency declaration earlier today, mobilizing the National Guard and directing all state agencies to help in the firefighting effort if needed.
“It’s a tough time,” she told a gathering of fire officials and local elected officials this afternoon at a fire camp set up at Wenatchee Confluence State Park. “We’re struggling. There’s just no question about it. I’m very concerned about containing these fires.”
Gregoire said she flew over Wenatchee earlier today and became alarmed when she couldn’t see the city through all the smoke.
“I kept asking the pilot ‘Where’s Wenatchee,’” she said. “I couldn’t see Wenatchee. What I could see of the fires was that they were robust, they were raging, and there were spot fires all over the place.”
Shortly after, she said, she got an emergency call from Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark asking for help with additional helicopters for fires.
The national fire team brought in Tuesday to oversee the complex of fires burning between Wenatchee and Chelan told Gregoire that they are in a defensive mode right now because they don’t have enough experienced fire crews to attack the fires head on. They are concentrating their efforts on protecting homes around Wenatchee, Cashmere and between Entiat and Chelan. But they can’t dig fire lines in the back country to start trying to contain the fires.
Incident Commander Jeff Pendleton said there are currently 850 homes under varying levels of evacuation. “There’s a lot of fire on the landscape,” he told Gregoire. “And there’s a lot of territory.”
Fire Operations Chief Mike Matarrese told the governor that he was concerned that the Poison Fire burning west of Cashmere could take off and threaten a church camp and recreational areas off the Blewett Pass highway.
Gregoire asked him if he had enough firefighters. “We don’t have the right type,” he said, adding that they really need more experienced Hot Shot crews.
“We have great crews out there,” he said. “But they don’t train together or work together all year.”
He said they also need people experienced in supervising fire crews out in the field.
Containment levels on most of the fires is anywhere from 0 to 10 percent. Matarrese said that unless they can get experienced crews into the back country to start building fire lines, “containment is going to be hard to come by.”
Gregoire said she is also concerned about public health because of all the smoke, which she said has infiltrated Western Washington as well. She encouraged people to stay indoors as much as possible.
“It’s affecting the whole state,” she said.
The governor said that once the fires are out, she will direct the state Department of Natural Resources to work with local agencies on a plan to mitigate potential runoff and mudslides in the many steep canyons burned by the fires.
For now, she said the state will do whatever it can to help in the effort.
“We’re at the mercy right now of Mother Nature,” she added. “We need a little break from Mother Nature so our firefighters can do what they do best.”
Michelle McNiel: 664-7152
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