Nearly 20 homes were evacuated by Bonney Lake police officers as a brush fire carved a path toward the Panorama Heights and The Summit neighborhoods.
East Pierce Fire and Rescue firefighters were dispatched at 3:58 p.m. on June 15, arriving just in time to beat back a fire that had crept into the backyards of a few houses.
Approximately 55 firefighters were on scene. The majority were from East Pierce, but mutual aid teams from Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, Orting Valley Fire and Rescue, Graham Fire and Rescue and Gig Harbor Fire also arrived.
Central Pierce provided a ladder truck that doused flames from The Summit neighborhood area, which was located at the top of the flaming hill.
“The size of the fire wasn’t that significant. It was less than a couple acres,” said Ed Goodlet, assistant chief at East Pierce. “It wasn’t difficult from a size perceptive, it was just the steep slope and how quick the fire was moving initially.”
During that first hour, Goodlet said the wind shifted and began blowing the fire back towards the area it came from, which helped firefighters contain the fire and extinguish it more quickly.
Fire crews were working to put out flames and hot spots until the sun went down, and East Pierce’s special wildland firefighting team kept an overnight watch to make sure the fire didn’t reignite.
The special wildland firefighting team was reinstated at the first of this month after a six-month furlough.
The furlough of the special teams was agreed upon by the fire department and the firefighter’s union, Local 3520, in order to balance the 2015 operating budget for the department.
While the wildland fire team was on furlough, they did not receive their monthly six to eight hours of training.
Assistant Chief Russ McCallion said if the teams were still furloughed when the fire broke out, members of the team would have been deployed as regular firefighters and crews would have still managed to put out the fire out before it reached houses.
However, how firefighters fought the fire would have looked very different, as well as the mop up afterwards.
“We wouldn’t have gone up the hillside like they did during that first afternoon as aggressively as we did with wildland team members,” McCallion said. “That allowed us to put the fire out more quickly, where it would have been more of us surrounding the fire and using our normal structural fire engines and hose lines while we waited for the Department of Natural Resources and others to cut in.”
“We got the job done more quickly and more effectively with the wildland team. Without it, it would have taken longer and in the end, ironically, might have cost us more,” he said, citing the money the department tried to save by furloughing the teams at the beginning of the year.
McCallion said wildland firefighting teams have “red card certification” which means these teams are specifically trained wildland firefighting techniques like digging lines and knocking down hot spots.
Since the team came back into action at the beginning of the month, they received their regular monthly training for this month and additional training that was front-loaded from the end of the year to catch the team up on training they missed, McCallion said.
Deploying a special rescue team while on furlough would have raised questions with the Department of Labor and Industries, McCallion said, and would open the department to liability.
Minimum staffing levels
While East Pierce and Bonney Lake residents were lucky the wildland firefighting team was back in action, the department suffered a small setback in not having their own ladder truck available for firefighting.
“Having Central Pierce’s ladder was really helpful. Just because of the steep slopes and the difficulty we were having climbing the hill on foot, they were able to, from the top, use an elevated waterway and really do a nice job putting a copious amount of water on the fire from a real safe position,” Goodlet said. “We would have used our truck in a similar fashion.”
Goodlet said the original reason the East Pierce ladder truck was out of commission at the beginning of the year was due to mechanical problems.
However, East Pierce’s new minimum staffing level of 21 firefighters, another agreement made between the department and the union to save money in this year’s budget, meant the department could no longer use their ladder truck.
“With the change in our staffing level, we took it out of service because it really requires a three person crew to operate safely. When we went from a minimum staffing of 23 to 21, that only allowed us two people on each company,” Goodlet said. “From the risk management perspective, we took the ladder out and replaced it with an engine company of two people.”
Goodlet said the department’s ladder truck, when fully staffed, operates out of the Sumner station, and would have most likely arrived at the fire sooner than another department’s ladder truck.
Reporter Alina Moss also contributed to this story.