Raging wildfires across Central and Eastern Washington have kept firefighters busy across the state, including some of our own Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) crews. Twenty AmeriCorps members, led by WCC supervisor Jay McMillen, assisted Department of Natural Resources as a hand crew on multiple fire dispatches this summer, starting with the Illabot Fire near Rockport in mid-June.
Serving on the fire line
Our WCC hand crew first dispatched to the Stewart Mountain Fire, supporting efforts within the first 48-72 hour period — referred to as an initial attack. On multiple fires following Stewart Mountain, the hand crew surveyed burned land, examining it closely for remaining heat, smoke or embers and extinguishing the spots with water and dirt — a procedure referred to as mopping up. These AmeriCorps hand crew members also dug fire line, or linear ditches that serve as fire barriers to prevent the fires from advancing.
Supporting fire camps
In addition to our hand crew, over 80 of our WCC AmeriCorps members deployed this summer to support 15 different fire camps across the state. Camp crews assist with food distribution, volunteer management, camp maintenance, equipment organization and anything else that might come up.
Although recent heavy rainfall across Washington provided temporary relief to low stream and river flows, wildfires continue to burn across parts of Eastern Washington. Wildfire risk is still extremely high. As of September 8, 10 of our WCC AmeriCorps members are still serving at the Okanagan Complex fire camp.
Visit Governor Inslee’s wildfire resource page for wildfire status updates and other resources.
Dispatch from the fireline: A personal account
Michael Hanley, a second-year AmeriCorps member on the King County Spike Crew, served on our WCC hand crew this summer. He wrote the following description of the crew’s recent dispatch to the Rutter Canyon Fire:
“Handheld radios crackle to life outside the rural fire station. All twenty AmeriCorps members of the WCC hand crew fall silent. A scratchy voice announces a new fire burning Northeast of Spokane. Any conversation with the Department of Natural Resources dispatcher is transmitted in a dialect of unit names, fire numbers, township and range positions, and fire jargon. (WCC Supervisor) Jay McMillen, fluent in fire jargon, flashes a pen to a notepad. I strain to understand the conversation. Zach Leavitt, fellow AmeriCorps member, Googles the fire address. We move around excitedly when he tells us the satellite image shows forest and hills. Bulldozers build fire line wherever possible, but command sends in hand crews like us when terrain is too rough for heavy equipment.
Our unit name is called. We pile into trucks. The first bursts of adrenaline hit as our caravan drives south. The radio croaks with fire engine traffic. "Fire's origin is in a box canyon." "Difficult access and egress." Trees torch and black smoke pours into the growing grey cloud. The fire is too hot. Helicopters drop buckets of water from the nearby river. Tankers drop retardant lines to cool the flanks. We wait at the staging area. We hydrate and spit sunflower seeds. We talk to homeowners who thank us and take pictures. As the sun sets, command sends us to hold the east edge of the fire. We patrol for embers that might jump our line. The Perseid meteor shower throws sparks across the sky. No fire crosses our line. We're back at our trucks eating pizza by 1:30 a.m. The Rutter Canyon fire is held to 150 acres.
At this moment, 17 WCC folks and three DNR employees have been fighting fire together in the Northeast corner of the state for two weeks. We are on our fifth fire. We have cut thousands of feet of hand line, called in water drops from helicopters and air tankers and mopped up acres of smoldering ash. Our bodies have been pushed to the limits. Our tempers have occasionally been tested, but we have all come out stronger. I can honestly say this experience has left a lasting mark on me. There is something amazing about depending on 19 other individuals as deeply as is required to fight fire. I am very grateful to supervisors Rob Crawford, Ernie Farmer, and Jay McMillen for building the WCC's firefighting capacity and keeping me safe out here.”
WCC’s disaster response program
Long hours, unpredictable conditions, and ultimately rewarding experiences serving communities in need often characterize WCC disaster response efforts. Deployments range from national to local disasters, supporting flood response and prevention, wildfire operations, hurricane assistance, and more. Four of our WCC crews are designated disaster response crews, though any crew has the potential to deploy.
Do you want to help the environment, meet great people and make a real difference? WCC is currently hiring for the 2015-2016 crew year! Ecology's Washington Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps Program, consists of three subprograms: the original WCC, Veteran Conservation Corps and Puget SoundCorps.
See photos of the types of projects WCC members work on during their service in our WCC Projects Flickr set. Learn more and apply online today to become a member of WCC: www.ecology.wa.gov/wcc