Wash. officials undergo national disaster training

Depending on the season, Washington state faces a variety of natural disasters.

Wildfires in the summer give way to floods and storms in the winter. And earthquakes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions are a risk year round.

With that in mind the state Department of the Military organized emergency preparedness briefings for state officials, many of whom are relatively new to their roles having arrived in Olympia this year with Gov. Jay Inslee.

Officials travelled recently to the state’s Emergency Operations Center at Camp Murray, about 20 miles north of the capital and discussed disaster scenarios, including the prospect of a three-county wildfire in eastern Washington, a drill that could prove timely considering this year’s wildfire season is expected to be severe.

“We cannot stop Mother Nature,” Lit Dudley, the exercise and training manager for the state Emergency Management Division, told the group of about two dozen state officials and staff last week. “However, once the emergency has happened, we can do everything in our power to limit the impact on citizens.”

Cabinet members, state agency heads and others discussed plans and procedures for how a given state agency would become involved in an emergency.

For example, in a wildfire, the Department of Transportation would be involved in any road closures. The Department of Health would step in if smoke significantly diminished air quality, which would be measured by the Department of Ecology. The Department of Commerce would be brought in to help businesses that might be impacted.

Agency heads also raised concerns that might otherwise be overlooked during a fire response.

Agriculture director Bud Hover noted a potential concern for the state’s nearly 730 organic farms that could be harmed if fire crews used chemical flame retardants.

“The impact to the economy if that ability of those farms were degraded to a point where they could no longer function could be great,” he told the group.

He said his agency would attempt to protect farmers by urging firefighters to avoid using chemicals near organic operations.

Bernie Warner, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, said the exercises showed how all elements of state government are intertwined during a disaster.

“It’s not just a one-dimensional approach of somebody goes and puts out a fire,” he said.

While at Camp Murray, state leaders toured the joint force headquarters of the Army and Air Force National Guard. From there they boarded a pair of heavy-duty military helicopters that flew them to the Yakima Training Center.

The Chinook helicopters, known for their twin rotors, dropped the government workers into a National Guard wildfire training exercise.

Guard members were facing the scenario of a series of wildfires caused by lightning in eastern Washington and chemical and fuel explosions in Kennewick.

In one tent on the site, soldiers gathered around computer screens and considered information such as a mock weather forecast, meanwhile large monitors on the wall showed units out fighting blazes.

Nearby, officials saw about 200 guard members train by digging fire lines and carrying hoses.

From there, the group of state leaders went to the Hammer training facility in Richland, where soldiers responded to a variety of scenarios, ranging from a potential toxic leak from an overturned tanker to a search-and-rescue exercise from a building.

Mary Alice Heuschel, Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff, said that briefings allowed those new to state government, such as herself, to become better prepared.

“We have to make sure there’s an awareness of what it takes to pull this together,” she said.

Major Gen. Bret D. Daugherty, commander of all Washington Army and Air National Guard forces and director of the state’s emergency management programs, said the training was a good way to remind state officials of the National Guard’s role in any disaster.

With the National Guard having faced numerous deployments during the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, Daugherty said “we just have not had the time to spend re-educating ourselves and focusing on our domestic responsibilities in the way that we really feel we need to do.”

Daugherty, who also serves as Inslee’s homeland security adviser, said that he plans to have additional training opportunities for Cabinet members in the coming months, including one dealing with floods and winter storms and another addressing earthquakes.

“The war is thankfully coming to an end,” he said. “And that allows us an opportunity to focus back on our traditional mission of domestic response.”

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