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Eyewitness on the fire line: DNR, EFR, prison crews attack Mount Si's '444 Fire'
Smoke gusts and curls along the trail and into my eyes as I work to keep up with DNR spokesperson Seth Barnes Sunday. We’re at the head of the fire, he says, walking along a steep trench that crews from the Department of Natural Resources, Eastside Fire & Rescue, and the Larch Corrections Center spent the last two mornings cutting into the hillside.
The flames are just small fingers here, where DNR helicopters dumped 270-gallon buckets of water throughout the day Saturday.
They burn right up to the edge of the trench, just a step away from my boots, but no further, because dirt can’t burn. They’re burning deep inside huge logs, though, making the air hot and dry.
A deep breath feels wrong, like inhaling sand, and the sunlight slanting through the smoke makes everything look ashy.
Down the slope of one of these newly made trails, Barnes spots a little black mole, moving fast but not frantically, as it crosses the trench from the burning side of the hill to the safe side. Once it’s across, Barnes says, “He’s OK now!”
Fire crews are also working fast, but not frantically, clearing snags and branches over trails, hauling out hoses, and cutting the trench as needed. The 4,100-foot mountain is loud with the sounds of chainsaws and trees falling, and the nonstop pumps that are pulling water from temporary ponds, like huge above-ground pools, and pushing it into the hoses strewn all around the trenches.
As we head back down the trail, marked with pink “Escape Route” ribbons, a few minutes later, the crew that had been cutting branches has finished that work and traded their chainsaws for pickaxes, to cut another firefighting trench.
The DNR has taken the lead in fighting the Mount Si fire, called Fire 444 because it’s burning off 444th Avenue on DNR land. The department has set up a command post at a private home near the base of the fire, and is working closely with North Bend’s fire department and other Eastside Fire crews, which are providing support.
Attacking the blaze
EFR crews were the first to respond to the fire, which began Friday. DNR helicopters were dispatched from Ellensburg, one on Friday, another on Saturday, to help firefighters get ahead of the flames on the steep, rocky terrain. The two helicopters dumped water on the head of the 18-acre fire all day Saturday, while firefighters chased the back of the fire up the hillside, Barnes said. A helicopter was available Sunday, too, he said, but hadn’t been needed by mid-afternoon.
By Sunday evening, the DNR estimated the fire at 50 percent containment. No homes are in danger from the flames, and no evacuations were ordered, as of Monday morning. However, the Mount Si, Little Si and Garden Loop trails were all closed over the weekend, and are likely to remain closed until the fire is completely extinguished.
A DNR fire investigator, on-site since Saturday, determined Monday that the fire was caused by human activity.
Fire 444 is one of several active wildfires in the state that the DNR is currently attacking. According to a report from North Bend City Administrator Londi Lindell, the DNR has another base camp set up at Twin Falls Middle School.
About 80 firefighters are attacking the fire, Barnes said, and with the cooling trend in the weather and an increase in humidity, he was optimistic that the fire could be completely extinguished in a week. Crews would stay behind for another day or so beyond that, he added, to “rehabilitate” the trails they cut, restoring brush and adding drainage channels, to prevent erosion.
More than half the firefighters Sunday, about 50 of them, were inmates from the Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt, Wash. Barnes said the DNR’s work program for these prisoners is considered a privilege, and each inmate has to apply for the opportunity and the training that comes with it. They also have to meet several requirements, such as a history of good behavior, with no violent offenses, and they must be in the later stages of their sentences, to minimize their flight risk. In return for their service, the inmates can earn a small amount of pay, too.
DNR’s fire managers ask that the public remember to practice good stewardship and be careful when recreating in wooded areas. Conditions are warm and dry, and fire danger is increasing. The blaze is a reminder to clean debris and shrubbery away from homes and structures, clean gutters and roofs, and cut limbs on trees near the ground.
Go to www.firewise.org to learn how to protect your home.