Fire risk high in Stevens County

Mary Angell
Staff Writer

Though the fires in Northeast Washington this summer have been small and extinguished rather quickly, the fire risk is high in and around Stevens County, according to officials. 
“We’re at a high fire danger right now,” said Franklin Pemberton, public information officer at the Colville National Forest. “We’re not on campfire restriction (in the forest) but really close. We may have to (prohibit campfires) after the heat this weekend.”
“The partners with the Department of Natural Resources  — the Forest Service and the local fire district —  are holding their breath,” he said.
The county’s open burning restriction, issued July 6, is still in effect. 
“We still allow campfires, but they have to be attended,” said Stevens County Sheriff Kendle Allen, who also serves as the county’s fire marshal.
The burning restriction does not rule out backyard barbecues, chimneys or other patio fire pits or recreational fires no larger than three feet in diameter or two feet high.  Campfires are also permitted in designated places in parks and campgrounds as allowed by the agencies that govern those areas. 
If the weather in the next couple of months is like the forecast for the coming week — high temperatures and low humidity — the Colville National Forest may have to consider a complete campfire restriction.  
“We’ve been fortunate we’re still getting good night time recovery — it cools down and we get a little moisture,” Pemberton said, adding no one knows if that trend will continue. 
Forest officials may also impose a ban if they notice campfires have not been properly extinguished. 
“People come up here and camp and they say a campfire really adds to the experience,” he said.  “We try to balance that with the need to prevent fires.”
He said very often people douse a fire with the water from their coolers and drive off, thinking they’ve put out their fire —-  but three or four hours later, the campfire site is still hot.
“You really have to stir and drown the fire, stir and drown it, stir and drown it,” Pemberton said. “People don’t understand how deep those embers stay hot. It’s got to be cold to the touch before you leave.”
He said people also mistakenly believe that if the trees are green, they are not dry. 
“They could be really dry. They’ve pushed all the water down to their hearts to keep alive, and the leaves and limbs are very dry,” he said. 
Both the county and the Forest Service follow the lead of the DNR when it comes to fire hazard warnings and restrictions. 
Currently, the DNR fire danger rating for Stevens County is high. Campfires are allowed in designated campgrounds, but individual campground restrictions may vary.  All other burning on land under DNR jurisdiction is prohibited, as are fireworks or explosives of any nature on any of its protected lands.
Washington has had a record number of fires for this time of year — 750, according to Veronica Randall, assistant center manager and intel coordinator at the Northeast Wyoming Interagency Communications Center.  
In the tri-county area, there have been 135 fires and a total of 270 acres burned.  
“Luckily, we’re keeping them smaller with a better firefighting force: more agencies, new beefed up fire fighting equipment,” Randall said. “There has been more agency funding for increased hiring. The DNR has additional engines and now an extra firefighter on each engine.”
Air tankers from both Canada and Coeur d’Alene have also helped tremendously with fighting fires in the area, she said. 
“We’ve had a few fires,” said Allen, “but luckily, the fire district, the DNR and the Forest Service have been great in getting a handle on them.” 

Contact Stevens County Sheriff's Dispatch at (509) 684-2555 for information regarding recreational fires on improved property.