Snoqualmie Firefighter Robert Lasswell is in California to assist with the August complex wildfire efforts. This fire, as of the most recent update at the time of this writing, is 870,200 acres and 43% contained. It is listed as the largest wildfire in California’s history. He is volunteering for 18 days alongside Duvall firefighters in the Duvall Fire Department’s Brush 66 apparatus, designed to combat grass and wildland fires. Firefighter Lasswell joined the Duvall team due to a staffing agreement between departments.
His Chief, Mark Correira, said he has been active in the Department’s Wellness Committee and leads up their Wildland Firefighting Program. Lasswell was one of the first members of the Department to be certified as a wildland firefighter and to deploy outside the area. He has been to multiple fires throughout our state and traveled to the Mendocino Complex fire in 2018.
A former Eastside Fire & Rescue volunteer in District 10, this one-time North Bend resident has been with the Snoqualmie Fire Department for over 17 years. Wanting to know more about this deployment, I spoke with Firefighter Lasswell briefly last night on the phone.
When I asked him how he became a wildland firefighter, he explained there is a national standard and classes to become one but that some wildland firefighting agencies operate at the federal level (National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs), the state level (Dept. of Forestry, Dept. of Natural Resources), and at the local level through an agency fire department. Lasswell is the manager for the Snoqualmie program and brings valuable knowledge back from these deployments to the program he manages.
“Robert is responsible for the Snoqualmie wildland firefighting program,” said Snoqualmie Fire Chief Mark Correira. “He is dedicated to his profession in saving lives and property. This deployment gives him real experience that he can bring back to the City and improve our wildland firefighting program. We are fortunate to have him as a member of our team.”
I asked what it’s like to fight a wildfire and how it differs from fighting a structural fire. He explained to me how big the response to a fire of this magnitude is. The August Complex Fire was started by lightning and is currently 63 miles long, 47 miles wide with over four thousand people fighting it, including ground crews and helicopters. In California, personnel can work 24-hour shifts, which start in the morning and end the next morning. He had just completed a 27-hour shift that morning, helped prep the rig for the next day, showered, slept for a couple of hours, ate, and then called me. It sounds exhausting, but he said he developed a love for it and the adrenaline rush you get doing it helps carry you through your long shift.
He explained that fighting fires in wildland areas require different equipment and techniques from the more familiar structural firefighting done with the SFD. Their vehicle is a type 6 engine, a custom-made engine on a Ford Chassis with a pump, water tank, and winch. This smaller vehicle, which belongs to the Duvall Department, can go places and do things a larger engine cannot. The clothing is lighter for more effortless movement, fire-resistant and bright yellow for visibility. A forest firefighter protects natural resources, ecosystems, and nearby homes and cities but may never come into contact with residents. They have to know more about topography, weather patterns and fight fires on a much larger scale than their urban counterparts. It’s fighting a fire in box vs. fighting one outside. Lasswell said it is sometimes very dull and tedious and sometimes exciting and very fast-paced.
I asked about the conditions in California that cause these giant fires and if we ever have similar situations in Washington State. Lasswell told me that the reason they are there is that California is expecting a shift in their weather pattern that could potentially spell trouble for fighting this fire. According to an incident report, the weather will transition to hot and dry conditions with strong northeasterly winds, which will continue through Sunday. High temperatures should be in the 80s and humidity around 25%. Winds will be 10-15 mph out of the northwest. A Red Flag Warning is in effect Sunday through Monday. These Santa Ana winds bring hot, dry weather and create critical fire weather conditions.
Earlier this month, we saw a similar situation that caused concerns for our area. According to Lasswell, those weather patterns are becoming more frequent, making the need for such a program more critical than in the past. His goal is to develop and grow the wildfire program to keep up with what’s happening as the department grows. Chief Correira noted he provides the department annually with wildland training, and the experience he gains on these fires is invaluable to the department, saying, “We are very fortunate to have him on the Fire Department team.”
It sounds like we’re all fortunate to have him in the Snoqualmie Valley. Thank you, and stay safe, firefighter Lasswell!