The 2014 Carlton Complex fire was the main topic of a legislative work session before the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee of the Washington legislature on the afternoon of January 29, 2015. The fire, which originally started as four separate fires ignited by lightning strikes in Okanogan County ended up becoming the largest wildfire in Washington history. It was finally fully extinguished in October after the start of the autumn rains. More than 350 structures were destroyed, and the town of Pateros was hit hard when the fire came into the community. Most of the fire department was out on the rural fire lines at the time. Gebbers Farms employees and equipment were credited with playing the key role in saving the town of Brewster and tens of thousands of acres in the middle of the Carlton Complex.
Management of the fire response became a heated topic early on, and the reasons for this were well covered in the work session by several of the witnesses. The general consensus is that a fire on this scale should never be allowed to happen again. There were several calls for the legislature to take the lead in preventing future wildfire catastrophes.
Representative Joel Kretz was one of the witnesses for the work session. He brought some of his ranch crew to help fight the fire. While he was there, he observed problems with the response, centered around how the incident management team was using available resources. His slide show tells a story of a system in need of reform. There were robust resources on the ground, but many of the responders were waiting for assignments, and were not allowed to go out on the fire lines without orders.
Carlene Anders is the Executive Director of the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group, which was formed to help the region’s fire-affected residents get back on their feet. She is also a member of the Pateros Fire Department and has been a wildfire fighter for more than thirty years. In her particularly moving testimony she told the committee that she had never seen anything like this fire in her career.
Okanogan County commissioners Jim DeTro and Ray Campbell are both highly experienced wildfire fighters. Commissioner DeTro included audio recordings of the radio traffic between an airplane carrying four smoke-jumpers who had been assigned to a fire in Oregon and were flying over the beginnings of two of the four fires that became the Carlton Complex. They asked their controllers if they should divert to the new fires instead of continuing on to Oregon. They were directed to continue their original mission.
The work session video archive is available from Washington’s TVW, the state’s version of C-SPAN. We recommend you take the time to watch it and consider the steps recommended by the witnesses for improving future wildfire responses.
The suggestions made by the witnesses are a good place to start, particularly while memories are fresh. We shouldn’t stop at improving how we respond to wildfires, though. We should move to managing our forests to make them healthier and more resilient to fire in the first place.