October 17, 2012 | LXXII, No. 29

Heated fire district meeting focuses on problems

A meeting of Douglas County Fire District 3 last week started out heated, but by the end of the meeting everyone had agreed on two things -- a lack of communications and a lack of resources.

The discussion centered around the recent Leahy Fire and the problems firefighters faced.

Rancher Jim Hemmer stirred the pot by recounting problems the fire district has had over the years. He cited trucks broken down, unfilled water tanks, and radios in disrepair.

Then he asked why fire trucks had been withheld from his home and others nearby.

Jay Webber, who lost his homestead place, questioned why a truck wasn’t sent to his place. However, he praised firefighters in general and said they deserved thanks for what they did.

An argument ensued on the deployment of firefighting resources.

Fire Chief Dale Rinker said there was a “lot of accusations going on,” but he didn’t think he could have done anything differently. “If someone has solutions for what we faced that day, I’d like to hear it,” he said. “We didn’t have firefighters sitting on their asses at home.”

Rinker went on to say that nearby departments, which traditionally would send equipment through mutual aid agreements, had problems of their own. Most other nearby units were fighting the Barker Canyon fire that threatened a number of homes and buildings.

The fires started from a lightning storm Sept. 8, and spread in high winds. Together known as the Barker Canyon Complex, they burned more than 81,000 acres and threatened Coulee Dam and Grand Coulee. They took more than a week and a half to contain and cost nearly $2 million to fight.

One commissioner noted that “communications” had been a major problem. Trucks couldn’t communicate with each other and different support groups couldn’t let others know where they were and what they were doing.

Michelle Hemmer asked why some kind of telephone tree wasn’t set up. She stated that this was the best way of informing ranchers of what was going on and what was needed.

Rick Paris, Grand Coulee’s fire chief, said “communications” had been a big problem, and he apologized for not being able to send additional equipment. Grand Coulee sent one truck, but all others were busy on the Barker Canyon fire.

Paris continued and talked about the loss ranchers suffered. “It wasn’t just a sagebrush fire; it was a fire that destroyed pasture land that will take time to replace,” he said.

The governor’s office, along with State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, has asked for a meeting of fire officials to talk about what might have been done.

Rinker addressed that when he recounted how hot and how fast the fire spread.

“I wouldn’t ask anyone to put their lives in danger,” he stated.

Rinker added, “Maybe it’s time that some of the smaller fire departments consider consolidation.”

Paris said he has been around more than 30 years and this fire was the biggest he has seen in the area.

While discussions were intense, most agreed that the district needed to update its radios and needed more trucks.

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