Preparing for the Extreme and Unexpected

How far outside your comfort zone are you going to have to call for resources? What if an extreme disaster comes and you need resources three counties away, but never had a conversation with those chiefs?

Extreme Events

Whitman County lies in eastern Washington State and is the number one wheat producing county in the nation. Area farmers were wrapping up the 2020 harvest of a bumper wheat crop, accompanied by dry conditions and erratic wind. Whitman County is mostly protected by volunteer departments (districts), with full-time crews in our larger cities, Pullman and Colfax, all bound together by mutual aid agreements. A typical harvest or wildland fire response includes the home district and a few others, however due to 2020s abnormal conditions, we added a couple of additional districts. For years, I have stressed to my own volunteers and to the county chiefs to “call for adequate help early on.”

The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for September 7, 2020.The Colfax Emergency Management office was preparing a morning COVID press release when the Colfax Fire Department was paged to the first wildland fire of the day – in the middle of a residential area. As the wind picked up, another wildland fire was spotted five miles outside of Colfax in Green Hollow – within ten minutes, we went from one fire on a Red Flag day to two, stretching our resources and limiting our response.

While dispatch requested resources from all the county districts, I called the area coordinator for air support; however, due to the winds, nothing was safe to fly. The county was tapped for resources, so I asked for State Mobilization. Walla Walla, the closest state resource center, was three hours away. I called Spokane County asking for aid, and they responded with singular strike teams of structural engines and wildland engines, but were an hour away. From the Moscow, Idaho, Fire Department, we received and accepted an offer, since Moscow is only thirty minutes away. A Colfax residence and a large shop were both consumed by this point and the Green Hollow Fire threatened residences.

An hour in, crews were managing the Colfax Fire and multiple requests were coming in – when a tone went out. A third wildfire had developed in Spokane County, a half mile from the county line. An automatic aid response was needed from my district. With the north wind, I knew it could wind up in my district. Monitoring the call, we rushed to develop a plan for the first two fires. My phone blew up! The fire was running fast in the timber and was heading directly towards the town of Malden. Evacuations were being ordered. I raced the 37 miles to Malden and was speaking to the county sheriff. Cresting the hill out of Colfax, a pyrocumulus cloud came into view – we had never experienced one before in Whitman County. Our hands were full. The fire blazed through Malden and destroyed about 80% of the town’s structures, continued south and decimated the community of Pine City, and continued southwest until it finally ran out of the timber and area farmers were able to catch it with tractors and disks.

Recovery Begins

By sunup Tuesday morning, the Colfax Fire had consumed 10 acres, destroyed two homes and a large shop. The Green Hollow Road Fire had consumed 3,000 acres and destroyed two homes. The Babb Road/Malden Fire consumed just over 15,000 acres, destroyed 120 homes and 93 out-buildings. There were no fatalities.

Days after the fire, a Type 3 Incident Management Team arrived. Four days after the fire, a Washington State Emergency Management Team arrived and completed a preliminary damage assessment for a Presidential Disaster Declaration. Nine days after the fire, a request for Public and Individual Assistance was submitted to FEMA. As the community came to grips with what had happened, donations started to pour in. Within a few days, local churches and community centers were overflowing with donated items. We requested help from the United Way of Whitman County for assistance with the monetary donations.

The community attitude was upbeat, considering they had just survived a catastrophic event. Donations from across the nation were coming in and a FEMA declaration was pending. However, days turned to weeks with no word on the declaration. No explicit reason was ever given for our lack of an official Presidential Disaster Declaration. While we waited, the Washington State Department of Ecology performed asbestos assessments on the majority of the properties, Washington State Emergency Management secured a contract to clean up the uninsured and underinsured properties, and the community created a Long Term Recovery Group to assist the survivors.

The recovery process is challenging even when things are going good. We should have had a Presidential Declaration four months sooner than we did. Those four months of not knowing were a disaster in itself as we tried to develop plans and contingency plans, not knowing if aid would be ever approved.

Lessons Learned

  • Call for adequate help early on–the quick response to Colfax saved numerous homes.
  • The call for State Resources put us in the queue early for an Incident Management Team, a limited resource that might not have been available if we had waited.
  • Understand the avenues of all types of resources. Volunteer resources such as farmers and tractors can be a huge asset to your response, but that, too, comes with issues like managing resources, safety risks and communication problems.
  • Review your mutual aid agreements - make sure they are inclusive for your everyday needs and will cover even the most unexpected days.
  • Extreme events can happen to any of us as any time and come in any form. Preparation and learning from others’ experiences can help lessen the blow of these events when it is your agency’s turn to respond.

by Chief Bill Tensfeld, Director of Whitman County Emergency Management

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