More wildfires, plus a longer fire season, has Washington state in desperate need of 550 new firefighters, calling for more men and women on the front lines than ever before.
Washington's Department of Natural Resources is looking for seasonal firefighters now, which is the earliest they’ve ever started hiring.
“2015 was a busy year, '16 was a busy year, '17 was a busy year,” said Brian Looper, a DNR Fire Unit Manager.”
2018 was the busiest year, with DNR fire crews responding to 1,826 wildfires.
“We had the worst number of fires in state history,” said Heather Franz, the Washington Commissioner of Public Lands.
Fires are more spread out over a longer fire season.
“Our fire season starts as early as February, and we have to have people ready and trained when those fires start,” Franz said.
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That has the state hiring 550 seasonal firefighters this year - up from 375 last year.
The earlier hiring season is also to allow time for more training.
“We are seeing obviously more catastrophic, challenging fires,” Franz said.
Looper said more bodies means more four-person engines instead of three-person engines.
“Adding that fourth person onto the engine increases capacity. It’s a lot more than just adding one more person. It exponentially increases the capacity of the engine crew,” Franz said.
The state says the fires are also reaching more areas of the state, which is another reason for needing more people.
“We also saw a new phenomenon, with 40% of our fires this year west of the Cascades,” Franz said. “We were literally fighting fires on every corner of the state.”
This is happening as neighboring regions like British Columbia and California experience more fires too.
Firefighter Adin Simmons came back from helping California and got home just before Thanksgiving.
“Seeing the homes, the devastation there was, it's a huge shock,” Simmons said. “The fire down there is much different fire behavior, it's much quicker, much drier, much more fast moving,” Simmons said.
That means Washington can't depend on neighbors for help.
Further escalating the situation, the state says Washington forests are getting sicker and more susceptible to flames.
“The reason we're seeing more catastrophic fires is we have a forest health crisis in Washington state,” Franz said.
She says 2.7 million acres of Washington forests are sick.
She says the hotter, drier weather makes our forests more prone to disease.
“Disease and insect infestation... can quickly destroy a forest, frankly, in just a few months. I saw that in Kittitas a month ago when I was up there to see a forest that had been devastated within just a few months from a moth kill,” Franz said.
The tussock moth defoliates conifers, turning the pine needles brown and eventually killing the trees.
“The dead, dying and diseased trees that are literally kindling,” Franz said.
The problems have the DNR not only needing more people, but also more money.
It's asking the state for $55 million, which would double the state's wildfire-fighting budget.
Half that will be used for treating forests - removing dead trees, thinning out some small trees and more controlled burns.
“We need to start treating those forests so we can keep that damage down,” Franz said.
The seasonal jobs are from June to September but can start earlier and go later, depending on what happens during the fire season.
Apply to be a seasonal firefighter here.
Learn more about what it’s like being a wildland firefighter here.
There is an upside. Although Washington saw the highest number of fires ever, the acres burned has gone down as technology improved.
In our state, 350,000 acres burned in 2018, compared to 1 million acres in 2015.
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