FIDALGO ISLAND — Tucked in a forested area on the south side of Lake Campbell, brush burned and smoke clouded the air.
The fire that burned June 16 was part of a four-day annual wildfire training exercise hosted by nearby Skagit County Fire District 11, also know as the Mount Erie Fire Department.
As various spot fires spit gray smoke into the forest, about 30 firefighters from local, state and federal agencies marched onto the scene with shovels and hoes to dig fire lines.
“It was like eating a campfire,” firefighter Brandi Baker said. “Normally when you’re around campfires you can move around the smoke ... but when you’re digging fire lines you are in the fire and the smoke.”
Baker and fellow participants spent several hours digging fire lines — bare ground meant to stop fire from spreading — then dousing hot spots with water and turning the soil until it was cool enough to touch with bare hands.
For Baker, digging the fire lines was the most intense part.
“The fire is right there and you have one foot in the black and one foot in the green and you’re like ‘Oh, wow, I better dig this line or there is going to be more fire in front of me,’” she said.
Fire District 11 Chief Mike Noyes, who has hosted the training for 15 years, said a critical part of the training is learning what it is like to fight a wildfire.
“We’re giving them the experience of having to truly fight a fire with no water at all, and showing them they can do it,” he said.
The Mount Erie department has helped train hundreds of firefighters since beginning the program in 2004 — a year after a fire at Sares Head on the west side of Fidalgo Island.
“We realized very quickly four of us knowing how to do it (fight wildfire) and the other 16 not knowing what was going on was not a good idea,” Noyes said of that fire.
The class roster this year included firefighters from the city of Anacortes, several Skagit County fire districts, Whatcom, Snohomish and other nearby counties, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Washington Conservation Corps and the U.S. Forest Service.
“We’ve got an incredibly diverse group,” Noyes said.
This training session, he said, is the only one held at the fire district level in the area. Many are led by federal or state agencies, such as the one Natural Resources held the week before near Hamilton.
Helping with the training was Donny Smith, who fought the state’s deadly Twisp River Fire in 2015, and Jordan Pollack, who has fought wildfires since the 1970s and in 2000 launched his own fire and EMS training company.
“We’re here to help you and make you better firefighters,” Pollack told those taking part.
After learning in a class-type setting for the first three days of the session — and with scores of 93 percent and higher achieved in testing — the class was ready June 16 to tackle a real fire lit by course leaders.
“From here on, it’s all about fire and smoke,” Pollack said.
The participants were split into groups of about five in order to learn how to work as a team.
“We’re trying to build that team cohesion because when things go bad, that’s the only thing that’s going to save them,” Noyes said.
Lilly McCaffrey, who is in her second summer with the U.S. Forest Service’s Sedro-Woolley Recreation Crew, said she was eager to complete the training so she can better help her summer crew fight wildfires this year.
“Last summer a lot of my crew members were busy on fires, and me being a first-year (member), I wasn’t able to do a lot to help,” McCaffrey said.
Baker, who is relatively new to the Mt. Erie Fire Department, also said she’s seen her fellow firefighters respond to fires she wasn’t prepared to tackle.
“We’ve had a few calls with brush fires so far, but since I hadn’t had the training yet ... I haven’t responded,” she said. “I’m a little excited that the next time there is a call I will be ready.”
Brush fires and forest fires are on the rise in the region, and the forecast for the rest of the summer in Western Washington is not good.
“It’s probably more dangerous over here (than in Eastern Washington) because no one expects it,” Noyes said. “You hear all the time ‘The west side doesn’t burn.’”
But Western Washington is burning more often and over larger areas, said Natural Resources Northwest Region Fire Technician Jason McMillen.
Plus, in some areas homes are close to forest lands in what is called wildland-urban interface, and that puts structures and lives at risk in the event of wildfires.
“For decades people have felt, ‘Oh well, we don’t get big fires in Western Washington,’” McMillen said. “And in recent years we’ve seen more fires and people building in the forest.”
Climate scientist Chris Field of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment said the heightened wildfire risk in Western Washington is becoming common throughout the western United States.
“We are in an era when every fire season is likely to be out of the ordinary,” he said in a news release. “The combination of climate change, increasing development in the wildland-urban interface and fuel accumulation from decades of fire suppression dramatically increases the risk of fires that are large and catastrophic.”
The Anacortes area has many homes in close proximity to forest lands.
“We’ve got a lot of wildland-urban interface; we’ve got a lot of woods out here,” Noyes said. “We grew right into it, and the island here sits in the Sequim rain shadow, so we dry out much faster than the rest of the county.”
That means nice summer days create some anxiety for firefighters such as Noyes.
“I’m wearing my wildland boots right now,” he said on the phone in late May. “I put them on at noon every day, as the sun comes out, this time of year.”
Hotter, drier summers and drought conditions such as seen in 2015 and expected this year, are extending wildfire season.
“That’s contributing to these fires starting sooner, going into the fall and getting bigger to where it’s hard for us to get around them,” McMillen said.
Noyes is happy to be able to provide wildfire training at his station each year and to get more firefighters what are called red cards.
That certification is recognized by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which provides leadership for wildfire response involving various agencies.
“We all want to be on the same page, speaking the same language,” Pollack said.
Having red card certification is becoming increasingly important for fire districts and other departments throughout the region, and Pollack said he has seen an increase in the number of local firefighting agencies that participate in wildfire training.
“One of my goals is to get more and more local fire departments up to speed with wildland fire training and equipment,” he said. “Every year I’m seeing more and more fire departments getting involved.”