By Bruce A. Smith
Thick acrid smoke filled Eatonville’s skies this week as a major grasslands fire ignited in the Grand Mounds area Tuesday afternoon, and westerly winds pushed the conflagration towards us. Over 100 homes were evacuated in the Scatter Creek neighborhood, and videos from KOMO and KIRO TV showed multiple buildings engulfed in flames. Reports from these media outlets also stated that what began as a small grassland fire west of I-5 moved east and jumped the Interstate, then engaged hundreds of acres of woodlands and residential and commercial areas.
The smoke traveled thirty miles to Eatonville and settled into our skies by late afternoon, lingering until late evening.
Although relatively small compared to the regional forest fires in eastern Washington and British Columbia, the Grand Mound fire was significant, requiring mutual aid units from Pierce County and other jurisdictions to combat the flames.
“Pierce County sent a Strike Team to the Grand Mound Fire,” confirmed Graham Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Tony Judd. GF&R sent one engine company, which in composed of one pumper truck and three fire fighters. In addition, Graham deployed a Battalion Chief, who assumed overall command of the Pierce County Strike Team.
Judd said that a Strike Team is composed of five engine companies from fire departments throughout Pierce County. “Our Strike Team dealt primarily with the grasslands fire,” Chief Judd said, adding that other Strike Teams concentrated on fighting the structural fires.
“It was a long-term event,” Judd said. “Our personnel worked through the entire night and didn’t return to Graham until 10 am the following morning (Wednesday).”
At the same time Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) was igniting its own fires, although the smoke from their controlled burns did not seem to add significantly to the volume of smoke over Eatonville.
JBLM Public Affairs Officer Joe Piek told the Mountain News on Wednesday that the base has been torching parts of its woodlands on a daily basis as part of its “prescribed burn program.” Piek said that these fires usually last no longer than three hours and consume only about 25-40 acres per day. Piek said that these burns are necessary to control the “under brush” so that the forest has less fuel to consume in the event of a major forest fire.
However, Piek also said that these prescribed burns are useful for “ecological restoration and habitat maintenance.” Part of the rationale for these fires is to “get rid of the Scots Broom,” Piek told the Mountain News.
In addition, Piek said that JBLM had resumed its controlled burns on August 14, just after the skies cleared of smoke from the British Columbia fires. But he said that the base only lights fires when weather conditions are ideal for a hot-burn that produces minimal smoke, and that JBLM complies with Burn Bans issued by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
But the safety and the health of the public is at serious risk. The WA Department of Ecology claims that 140 Washington residents die annually from chronic exposure to wood smoke, most of which is from wood stoves.
Further, Chief Judd said that JBLM is not following Fire Safety Ban guidelines established by the Pierce County Fire Marshall’s Office.
Currently, Pierce County is under a Fire Ban issued by this agency, yet Piek told Congressman Adam Smith’s office this week that JBLM will continue its controlled burns for six weeks.
Specifically, PAO Piek told the Mountain News that JBLM will be conducting controlled burns “until the rains come.”
Chief Judd said that JBLM is exempt from the Fire Marshall’s rulings because the base is governed by the federal government and not beholden to local edicts despite the common-sense perspective that appropriate land management practices for the general public should also guide the military.
Nevertheless, Piek estimates that the base will burn about 200 acres per week. Thus, area residents will have to breathe JBLM smoke from 1,200 acres of fire until late September.
The notion that JBLM needs to burn grasslands and forests to control Scots Broom is attracting increasing attention and concern. Adam Smith’s office will continue to monitor the controlled burns at JBLM, Rebecca Bryant told the Mountain News on Thursday.
Plus, local fire agencies will continue to monitor JBLM’s burning.
“The base informs us whenever they are conducting a controlled burn,” said Chief Judd, “and these days we’re getting a notice almost on a daily basis.” He also added an alarming note: “Sometimes these fires get away from them,” resulting in a major conflagration.