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A team effort: Firefighting involves different approaches, personnel

September 15, 2017 GMT

Brandon Lewis, operations branch director for the Jolly Mountain Fire, said the perfect understory fire strikes a delicate balance between speed and efficiency.

Understory fires are just one of the methods crews are using to combat the fires like Jolly Mountain in Upper Kittitas County. These small, controlled burns snuff out underbrush and other natural elements that could fuel a fire, but leave the tree line intact.

“By burning away the brush, we kill more resources for a fire to grow,” said Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Wilderness Ranger Kyle Warden. “That way it still leaves behind the forest that people know.”

Lewis talked about understory fires and Jolly Mountain Fire operations at a lookout point near Lake Cle Elum on Thursday. There’s a difference between starting understory fires in grass and timber, he said.

“When you’re using drip torches, it’s not uncommon for us to drop the torch down and run a solid stream of fire through the grass because you want it to consume everything really quickly,” Lewis said. “In a timber, brush fuel model, a lot of times it’s better to put a dot and fuel, which means that you’ll put a dot of fuel down every five, 10 feet and stop, let those dots burn together.

“It reduces the intensity of the fire activity when those dots tie together and merge.”

WORK ON FIRE

As of this morning, the fire was at 34,222 acres, or 53 square miles, and 30 percent containment. A total of 788 people, five helicopters, 18 crews and 55 engines are fighting the blaze. The fire started Aug. 11 and was caused by lightning.

Minimal fire growth can be expected as temperatures begin to cool, relative humidity increases and the fire has reached containment lines, according to a report today from the incident command team.

Firefighters have completed a pump and sprinkler system on the dozer-constructed line south of Salmon la Sac Creek and related mop-up operations.

To the east, crews are beating back the fire from cabins on the North Fork Teanaway River and the north of Johnson Creek while air crews continue to douse unburned brush in the Jungle Creek drainage.

On Thursday, air support assisted crews with firing operations from Salmon la Sac south to Howson Creek to limit the fire’s spread.

Along the western perimeter near Morgan Creek, firefighters are patrolling to ensure the fire stays within control lines. Mop up and patrol will continue from the southwest portion of the fire east along the southern perimeter to the Teanaway River.

While fire planes may strike a more dramatic image for people than shovels and hoses, Lewis said that every fire is a battle fought by crews on the ground in tandem with support in the air.

“People see planes, but they don’t see the people on the ground,” Lewis said. “Most of the time, air support needs to be followed up with ground troops to really see its effectiveness. Retardant, in particular, is exactly that, it retards fire, it doesn’t suppress fire. It’ll slow fire progression down to allow those troops to get the ground resources needed and come in and actually suppress the fire.”

FIREFIGHTERS

Fighting a wildfire is a team effort involving local volunteers, federal and state firefighters.

According to U.S. Fire Administration’s September 2017 report, only 33 percent of the 1,066,400 active firefighting personnel around the country were career firefighters — 55 percent were volunteers firefighters and another 12 percent were paid per call firefighters.

Just 11.3 percent of Washington’s firefighters are career firefighters according to the report — another 40.5 percent are volunteer firefighter with the rest being a mix combination of volunteer and career firefighters.

Structure crews have been important to the team fighting the Jolly Mountain Fire, Lewis said.

“Most of us wildland firefighters don’t have the training or the equipment, nor are we tasked with that responsibility,” Lewis said. “We are not allowed to do anything with structures or vehicles. We can help out on the exterior of a structure, spraying the siding out ... our job is protecting the land around us.”

For Lewis, wildfire containment will always come from a combined effort of local, state, and federal firefighters working together.

“When it comes to these big campaign fires, we all rely on each to have enough bodies and expertise to fight them, and to make decisions that affect not just firefighters, but the community,” Lewis said.