A fire sparked by a target shooter, that recently burned a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) property, has officials reminding all outdoor users that almost anything can cause trouble in eastern Washington's dry conditions.
Seventy acres of the Colockum Wildlife Area on the Chelan-Kittitas county line burned August 4 after a shooter's metal slug sparked on rocks that surrounded tin cans used for target practice.
The shooter immediately ran the 100 yards to the spot where smoke started in the dry grass around the rocks, but the fire was already more than he could control by himself. He raced in his vehicle to the wildlife area headquarters, about half-a-mile away, and alerted Tami Lopushinski, wife of WDFW wildlife area manager Pete Lopushinski, who was away at a meeting. Tami called Chelan County Fire District One, which provides fire protection for the area on contract, and the battle began.
Lopushinski was called out of the meeting to help dig a fire break line around his home at the area headquarters. "Luckily it was calm that day," Lopushinski recalled, "but the fire still went uphill quickly. We ended up calling in two helicopters from Ellensburg to dump buckets of water scooped from the Columbia River to finally stop it."
Fortunately, Lopushinski said, the target shooter was very responsible and acted immediately. If notification of the fire had been delayed, the damage would have been much more severe.
The fire protection contract for the 88,000-acre wildlife area costs WDFW $27,000 a year, Lopushinski said. Use of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) helicopters cost about another $8,000. Rehabilitation of the 70 acres of sage and bluebunch wheat grass that burned will cost at least $3,000 in re-seeding by air.
"It's expensive, but this was one of the smaller fires," Lopushinski said. "Over the fourth of July we fought a 500-acre fire on the east side of the wildlife area that was started by fireworks shot from a boat on the Columbia River. That one included four air tankers at about $3,500 apiece."
The Colockum's shrub-steppe and forest habitats are home to elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, forest grouse, owls, woodpeckers, and a host of other wildlife species. Although roads are primitive, it is open to campers, hikers, bikers, birdwatchers, fishers, hunters – and target practice shooters.
Other wildlife areas across eastern Washington have burned from dozens of wildfires this summer, noted WDFW North Central Regional Director Craig Burley of Ephrata. "We've had at least ten on the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area complex alone," he said.
Burley said fires have been started by everything from open campfires to the spark from the firearm at the Colockum. Open fires have been banned since Aug. 4, by order of DNR, the state's lead agency in wildfire control.
"It's the little things that we wouldn't ordinarily think of as fire starters that we all need to be especially careful about now," Burley said. "Be careful where you park your motor vehicle. Forget about using a chainsaw in the woods. And don't even think about having smoking materials outside."
Many parts of eastern Washington are well below normal rainfall for the past month or more, Burley noted. Late spring and early summer rains in some areas only created lush vegetation that is fueling fires now. Weather forecasts don't promise much relief in the near future.
Burley and other WDFW officials ask all users of Washington's public lands to be alert, aware, and extremely careful with everything and anything that might start another wildfire.
"We don't want to have to restrict activities on these lands," Burley said. "We won't have to if everyone can be on guard with us about wildfire prevention."