There are nearly 100 large fires burning nationwide, most of them in the West. They’ve burned up more than 7 million acres of land and hundreds of homes and buildings. As a result, firefighting resources are running thin. Some of the biggest active blazes are up in the rural areas of Washington state. For the first time in 10 years, U.S. soldiers have been called in to battle the fires in the West.
The need for firefighters there has become so great that for the first time in its history, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources began accepting offers from people hoping to help fight the fires or donate equipment. But is it really a good idea to send volunteers out to fight these massive, fast-moving wildfires that trained professionals have trouble containing?
People in central Washington will, almost to a person, tell you that these fires are burning exceptionally hot and spreading really fast. Joe Smiley, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, says it’s overwhelming its crews. “We’re stretched thin throughout Washington and Oregon fighting fires as they start,” he says. “And they just keep spreading.”
Fires in the Northwest
And the people of Washington get it. They want to to help. So just this week, the state decided to allow people who wanted to volunteer to fight the fires to come forward. “Our phone boss got overloaded,” Smiley says. “His phone actually shut down for a bit. He listened to 29 voicemails, and in that time had another 18 arrive.”
But even though Washington is strapped for manpower, not everyone who volunteers is going to be out on the front line.
Brigette Smith, executive secretary for Washington’s State Board for Volunteer Firefighters, says being a volunteer firefighter isn’t like volunteering at a soup kitchen.
“It’s not like they get paychecks, per se, but they do go through many of the same requirements,” she says. “And many of the same checks that a career firefighter would go through.”
That means a background check and a physical. All volunteer firefighters have to get insurance from the state as well.
Roy Reiber, a fire commissioner in Okanogan County (the site of the most devastating fires active right now), proudly says he was a volunteer firefighter for 26 years. He thinks having all these new volunteers is good, but it might be a blessing and a curse.
“It certainly would be,” he says. “Because you have to put your experienced guys keeping people out of trouble.”
The Department of Natural Resources admits this is something of an experiment. If it works and everyone stays safe, they say it might be an example of how to combat limited manpower under the strain of a disaster.