LEAVENWORTH — State COVID-19 vaccine requirements could drastically reduce the number of volunteer firefighters able to respond to large fires, two local fire chiefs say.
Chiefs Phil Mosher and Kelly O’Brien, heads of the fire districts in Monitor and Leavenworth respectively, say vaccine requirements may lead to two-thirds fewer firefighters available for mobilization.
The smaller forces could lead to bigger fires, greater property damage and more injuries, they said.
“For us, it’s a matter of protection of property and safety of our firefighters,” O’Brien said in an interview. They say resources — like firefighters and brush trucks —will be more scarce and the initial crews working the fire will be required to stay longer on incidents.
“We are just going to wear our personnel out,” they wrote in a joint statement outlining their concerns.
Chris Loftis, a spokesman for the state Fire Marshal’s Office, which can deploy volunteers to the early stages of a wildfire, confirmed that the vaccination order “applies to volunteer firefighters who become ‘casual hires’ during emergency mobilization because they officially become a state employee at the time of their temporary employment for (an) incident.” He noted the Fire Marshal’s Office will comply with the state order.
Mosher and O’Brien are committee members of the Mid-Columbia Mobilization Region, a group made up of firefighters from Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties. Volunteers from these areas are often called into each other’s jurisdictions by the state Fire Marshal’s Office to assist with a blaze.
Statewide, the Fire Marshal’s Office mobilized crews to 23 fires in 2020, according to a report from the Washington State Patrol. Also in 2020, there were more than 9,600 volunteer firefighters in Washington, O’Brien said, citing figures from the State Board for Volunteer Firefighters, though it’s unclear how many were wildland firefighters. He added that volunteers made up about 40% of all mobilized wildland firefighters last year.
When a wildfire grows beyond the capabilities of local firefighters, officials can request help from the state Fire Marshal’s Office, which can then hire, or mobilize, volunteer firefighters from across a region to respond to the fire. As an example, volunteers were mobilized Aug. 29, 2021 a few hours after the Rooster Comb Fire began in the Wenatchee foothills.
The mobilization program is separate from federal incident management teams that can be deployed to oversee the management of disasters.
“State fire mobilization is a great program and tool for fire chiefs. It really is,” O’Brien said. “There are not very many states around that have something similar to what we’re lucky enough to have here where we can mobilize mass numbers of fire service personnel.”
Mobilization crews provide more manpower and can relieve tired local firefighters.
But these firefighters, while volunteers in their home fire departments, are temporary paid employees of the state, or “casual hires,” while assigned to a mobilization.
And state employees are required to be vaccinated.
Gov. Jay Inslee on June 30 made up-to-date COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters a permanent requirement for employees of state executive and small cabinet agencies, including the Washington State Patrol, which oversees the Fire Marshal’s Office.
Mosher’s and O’Brien’s concern that the requirement will shrink available forces is based in part on a survey earlier this year of fire departments in the Mid-Columbia Mobilization Region.
The two chiefs asked the region’s fire departments to poll their volunteers’ vaccination status. About 20 of the 66 departments responded with answers.
Of the 562 volunteer firefighters who responded to the survey, 248 were vaccinated — about 44%. But only 77 were willing to submit their vaccination card to the State Patrol. That’s about one-third of the eligible pool and about 14% of all the firefighters who took the survey.
Loftis, the spokesman for the state Fire Marshal’s Office and State Patrol, said the Fire Marshal’s office will comply with Inslee’s vaccination requirements.
He confirmed that the order “applies to volunteer firefighters who become ‘casual hires’ during emergency mobilization because they officially become a state employee at the time of their temporary employment for (an) incident.”
Asked if the Fire Marshal’s Office shares the chiefs’ concerns, Loftis said the office “remains steadfast in preparing and mobilizing” resources in the event of an emergency.
“We will continue to work collaboratively with the Washington State Fire Service, Department of Natural Resources, and the Emergency Management Division in the event the Washington State Fire Services Resource Mobilization Plan is implemented and find the resources needed to meet both the fire-fighting duties and the health requirements of all personnel during this unique time of continuing shared medical vulnerability,” Loftis said.
Mosher is also critical of what he believes are inconsistent vaccination standards.
Inslee in May issued a proclamation that allowed vaccine exemptions for state contractors who, among other stipulations, work outdoors.
“So that means those (wildfire) contractors — could be a kitchen on an incident, a shower facility on an incident, brush truck on an incident,” Mosher said. The contractors will be allowed to work for the State Patrol during mobilization, “But yet, volunteer firefighters working in the same environment have to be vaccinated,” Mosher said.
Mosher and O’Brien say they’ve attempted to make their concerns known in Olympia but they said their worries have either fallen on deaf ears or not been communicated properly to decision makers.
“So for me, it’s just highly frustrating that we haven’t been able to get this solved,” O’Brien said. “And we don’t have anywhere else to turn at this point but to let our public know that this is a possibility this year.”
Their concerns come in a year when the Okanogan-Wenatchee National is down about 60 firefighters. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), on the other hand, is up about 20.
So far this year, the largest fire in North Central Washington has been the 1,200-acre Stayman Flats Fire south of Chelan, fought by local crews and the DNR earlier this month. No mobilization crews were deployed to the fire.