Lawmaker criticizes how Carlton Complex fire was fought

Matthew Weaver
Washington Rep. Joel Kretz, of Wauconda, would like to see the state Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hold hearings to review the handling of the Carlton Complex fire.

A Washington state legislator is calling for hearings to address what he says were shortcomings in the way firefighters handled the Carlton Complex fire.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said he observed firefighting efforts on Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Wash.

Kretz stressed that the failings were not in the firefighters but the system.

“On the management end of this thing, we’ve gone from firefighting to fire-managing,” he said. “I think it’s going to have to be a complete overhaul.”

Local fire departments and Gebbers Farms’ efforts were successful and effective, but he said he couldn’t get answers from incident commanders.

Kretz said he saw success by local firefighters and private entities, while frustrated crews sat in Brewster waiting for orders.

“The only reason Brewster’s here is Gebbers Farms,” Kretz said.

Gebbers Farms used its equipment to build a fire line to save houses and towns, he said, and requested two-wheel drive fire trucks to follow along and spray down hot spots, and were told by managers they’d get back to them.

“When you wait four days for them to get back to you, something’s screwed up,” Kretz said. “You fight fire in real time, you don’t fight it in four- or five-day delays.”

Kretz also said calls for permission to take a fire line across state-owned ground took too long for a reply.

“When it takes five-and-a-half hours to get an answer, you’ve lost your window,” he said. “It could have been contained several times in situations like that.”

Washington Department of Natural Resources communications and outreach director Sandra Kaiser said it will be a while before details are available on precisely what happened in all the locations that made up the Carlton Complex fire.

“The top priority for the incident commanders was to keep people safe,” Kaiser said. “It’s terrible when people lose their homes, but it’s worse when they lose their lives.”

There was one fatality, a landowner who reportedly had a heart attack while trying to protect his home, Kaiser said.

Fire crews and equipment were in high demand because there had been many massive, fast and dangerous fires throughout the region, in addition to the Carlton Complex, Kaiser said.

At one point, more than 3,000 firefighters were battling the Carlton Complex fire, Kaiser said.

There were 27 firefighter injuries or illnesses, she said.

The Carlton Complex fire burned 250,000 acres and 300 homes and cost $36 million to fight so far, Kaiser said.

“The fire set a new standard of unpredictability, destruction and danger for all who fight fires in the West,” Kaiser said.

Kretz has discussed holding hearings with the chair of the state House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The people who suffered the most need the chance to address what happened, he said. If the management isn’t working, it’s the Legislature’s job to examine the situation to avoid similar scenarios, Kretz said, saying most of what he saw was avoidable.

“If we’re going to ask citizens to pay a fire assessment, what are we paying for and what are we getting?” he said. “I don’t see why we’re sending that money to Olympia if they’re going to bungle like they did.”

Concerns also arose in the agriculture community over instances where volunteers reportedly offered to help extinguish fires caused by lightning in the Carlton Complex fire and were turned away.

DNR does not typically turn qualified firefighters away, Kaiser said.

“However, there are many risks involved in wild land firefighting, and it is the responsibility of the incident management team — made up of local, state and federal firefighters — to manage those risks,” Kaiser said, noting safety is top priority. “If volunteers try to step in without being a part of the incident management team, their safety and the safety of all firefighters can be compromised.”



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