CLE ELUM, Wash. -- You can hear the thumping of the helicopter blades well before you see the Vietnam War-era Huey helicopter appear from behind the stand of trees at the small municipal airport. A long cable swings from the underside of the chopper, but there’s nothing on it.
“That’s one of the hardest maneuvers,” says Elliot Tonning. “It’s hard to fly with a line that doesn’t have any weight on it.”
Tanning is one of the Washington State Dept. of Natural Resources firefighters part of the training exercises in the small airport in the heart of the Cascade that’s surrounded by trees and mountain peaks in every direction. After back-to-back record wildfire seasons, Washington’s Dept. of Natural Resources is training earlier than ever for what they expect to be another active wildfire season.
Another helicopter drops a huge load of water on a designated target on the runway. Each collapsable bucket holds 240 gallons of water to drop all at once on a blaze. Fire retardant foam can be mixed with each payload if they were fighting a real wildfire. It’s these helicopters that are often the first line of defense in keeping Washington State wildfires in check. “Oh, it’s critical,” says Tonning. He’s showing off one of the eight helicopters in the DNR fleet. The helicopters and six fixed-wing airplanes make up the air support for the Dept. of Natural Resources for this year’s wildfire season. “We get to places where other people can’t get to. And we get there quickly,” says Tonning. This is his sixth season fighting wildfires. He’s part of what’s called a “quick strike” helicopter team. These exercises are to get crews ready to battle blazes all spring, summer and fall.
Last year about a million acres in Washington State caught fire. It was the worse ever fire season in state history. This year, they hope to keep fires small. “We get to the fires fast and that’s DNR’s ultimate goal: is that [fire] is ten acres and no more.” It’s a difficult task and the state legislature didn’t help by only giving the agency a fraction of what they asked for financially. Last year, the Dept. of Natural Resources went 160 million dollars over their fire fighting budget. This year, an agency spokesperson tells Q13 News that they tried to be proactive and requested 24 million dollars. The legislature approved less than 7 million. “We did manage to squeeze out enough money to increase some of our air support," says Sandra Kaiser. She's with the department's communication arm. This year, she says their agency needs up from all of us. 85 percent of the wildfire her agency fought in the last decade were human-caused. "It's important to realize," she says, "the landscape is changing in our state. Activities that wouldn't have started fires years ago maybe will start fires now." Things like lawn mowing, using chainsaws, fireworks or campfires all could be the spark that causes a massive wildfire. Fires that can threaten lives, homes, incinerate people's belongings and destroy wildlife habitat.
Kaiser says our forests are stressed from hotter and drier summers plus warm winters that don't kill off invading insects. Just last month was the hottest April on record ever for SeaTac and many places in Western Washington. Kaiser says they've never seen an April snowpack disappear like it has in the last several weeks. She dismisses the notion of letting some fires burn themselves out in certain circumstances. It's a concept that some federal agencies are have been considering to better allocate slim fire fighting resources when the fire season really ramps up in the Western U.S. Kaiser says it just goes against the DNR mission. "We’ve got to protect people and property and habitat and that’s really the mission of the Department of Natural Resources and we’re going to do that. That is job number one for us.”
No matter how bad this season gets, Elliot Tonning says he’s ready for the dangerous job ahead because it’s rewarding in many ways. “Every day is different,” he says. “I like the exciting parts of it and helping out the whole of Washington State.” Already this year, DNR crews have fought 25 fires. The peak of the Pacific Northwest fire season though is still three hot dry months away.