U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier (D-WA) visited Wenatchee last week and served as moderator of a panel on fire safety at Wenatchee City Hall.
On June 28, Schrier spoke alongside John Sokich from the National Weather Service, Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue’s Mick Lamar, and Matt Castle of the United States Forest Service’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The forum happened during a waiting period of sorts for some of the local agencies in wildfire preparation.
Chelan County along with the Leavenworth, Chelan and Wenatchee Valley chambers of commerce are funding a University of Washington School of Forestry study that could change how the area’s emergency agencies prepare for wildfires.
The study will be out in about two months and will help determine if the local agencies can do more prescribed burning, Chelan County Natural Resources Director Mike Kaputa said.
“It’s better to have small amounts of smoke from controlled burns than large amounts of smoke from wildfires,” Kaputa said.
During her Wenatchee visit, Schrier praised the work of State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, whose tasks include prescribing burns. It also entails managing forests and finding helicopter parts on the internet to rebuild Vietnam-era helicopters to help fight fires.
At the same time, having to rebuild helicopters that are at least 40 years old shows “we should be able to do better” when preparing to fight fires, Schrier added.
Castle warned that communities in Eastern Washington are at a high-exposure risk to wildfires.
“We are one of the highest-risk areas in the West,” he said.
Schrier recommended that people set evacuation routes at home and keep a bag of belongings ready, along with an extra stash of meds, N-95 masks and inhalers. She recommended getting insurance, regardless of whether you rent or own.
Lamar agreed, saying that preparation is key.
“Personal responsibility, and having your stuff squared away when things happen, makes us a lot safer,” he said. “If we pre-plan a few things, we are going to save lives, I guarantee you.”
At the forum, Schrier also recommended not waiting for FEMA aid.
For FEMA to act, states need to declare a state of emergency, have the federal government agree with that declaration, and then the FEMA aid kicks in, topping out at $34,000 per household.
Sokich warned those in attendance that there is no longer a fire season.
“Now we are finding out (at the National Weather Service) that the fire season is basically year-round,” Sokich said.
Lamar agreed. The job that once entailed fighting fires and making aid calls now also includes hazardous materials, active shooters and long firefights deep in the woods.
“Now we spend from June to October fighting fires and that’s pretty hard on a volunteer fire service,” Lamar said, before asking the audience to help keep firefighters safe by taking precautions at home.
“You can’t wait until after the fire is over to ask, ‘what do we do?’” Lamar said.