OKANOGAN — The annual Okanogan County Fire Season meeting gathered dozens of agency representatives to the Fairgrounds Annex to check-in, meet up and ask for continued communications improvements.
Among those agencies were fire districts, public utilities, law enforcement offices, multiple city and county agencies, several state agencies and more.
National Weather Service kicked off the discussion, sharing that the above normal precipitation has been good to keep fire season at bay, but the weather trends over the next couple weeks will bring fire season in full force, persisting through a likely hot, dry September and October.
Many agencies discussed their best methods of contacting each other, and several shared challenges of being understaffed. Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said they are not facing large labor shortages and are ready for response in the county. Volunteer fire districts shared that they need new volunteers to step forward, especially as others are looking to retire.
The Red Cross also needs volunteers in Okanogan County. The lack of volunteers delays the Red Cross efforts to set up shelters by about four hours, but training is available online for anyone interested.
Several agencies, such as law enforcement and public works, shared their frustrations with “lookie-loos” in disaster areas, who are only there to take photos or look at the damage. These members of the public get around roadblocks and cause safety hazards not only for themselves, but also for responders. Many of the agencies do not have the staff to post a person at every roadblock and need the public’s help in discouraging anyone from accessing disaster areas.
Power providers shared their strategies for the upcoming season as well. In non-fire season, the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) in Winthrop system normally is set to “reclose,” or attempts to restore power automatically. OCEC moved their system to non-reclose, meaning that crews patrol lines manually for damage before restoring power, General Manager Greg Mendonca said, resulting in more frequent outages of longer duration. Crews attempt to restore power as quickly and as safely possible, especially considering members’ needs for medical equipment, water, etc.
At Okanogan County PUD, crews follow behind fire crews, shutting off or restoring power as needed. Right-of-Way Superintendent Nick Christoph said the PUD’s aggressive vegetation management program has been key for them to prevent fires.
Ferry County PUD Superintendent Mike Brown said his agency has a small portion in Okanogan County, so have been working on connecting with the right people to do shutoffs and restorations when necessary.
Nespelem Valley Electric Cooperative’s (NVEC) Line Superintendent Ed Hartbarger said their goal is to keep power on until the last possible minute. Their system has been on non-reclose since May.
Utility officials also reminded first responders to always treat powerlines as though they are energized, and to keep in mind that even if the lines were off, they could come back on at any time.
In the ongoing battle against false information, Okanogan County Emergency Management Director Maurice Goodall said his agency is moving away from Facebook-based updates to their website to provide regular updates, including an incident map. In an emergency, the two staff at his office do not have the time to correct comments on social media, so ask that the public sign up for their alert system and track updates on their website, www.okanogancounty.org.
Other agencies in attendance include (but are not limited to): Colville Tribes Emergency Management, Lifeline Ambulance, Aero Methow, state Department of Natural Resources, Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office and multiple city and tribal law enforcement agencies and fire districts, Okanogan County Public Health, several city and Okanogan County Public Works, Washington State Department of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, Washington State Parks and the National Weather Service.