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Weekly Dept. Feature: Summer of wildfires exhausting for Okanogan County Sheriff's Dept.

September 07, 2001
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Weekly Dept. Feature: Summer of wildfires exhausting for Okanogan County Sheriff's Dept.

(OKANOGAN, Wash.) – It's been a long hot summer for the Okanogan County Sheriff's Office.

The 33 commissioned officers in the department are busy in ordinary times policing a county of more than 5,000 square miles with 120 miles of Canadian border and thousands of acres of forest wilderness. Throw in weeks of raging wildfires, and you have a department stretched to the absolute limit.

"People are putting in some awfully long weeks and days," Sheriff Michael Murray said.

Okanogan County is in north-central Washington, bordered by Canada on the north and the Columbia River on the south. Murray said that the county, about 100 miles from north to south, is about 70 percent forest but also has large apple orchards.

Murray said that weeks of strain began with a relatively small wildfire that burned 3,000 acres on July 9, immediately followed by a blaze that became known as the Thirty Mile Fire. Within days, four young firefighters had been killed, and sheriff's officers had to retrieve the bodies and investigate the deaths along with the cause and origin of the fires.

Officers also had to evacuate hikers, campers and fishermen from the Pasayten Wilderness, a large tract of federal land in the county. Murray said he begged and borrowed four helicopters and used officers familiar with the area to find people and instruct them on how to get out, using the choppers for those physically unable to make it out on their own.

More wildfires started in early August and were still going last week, although damped down by rain. Hundreds of people have been forced out of their homes, and the sheriff's department has had to seal off the evacuated areas to prevent looters from taking advantage of the situation.

In addition to the fires, the department has had two difficult missing persons cases this summer. In one, a woman and her 9-year-old daughter were caught by a flash flood in July, when a heavy rain storm inundated one small area. The woman was able to get the little girl out of the car and safe but was swept away herself. Searchers later found the vehicle but the woman is still missing.

In the other case, a man vanished after leaving his wife at the doctor. Murray said investigators have found signs of foul play and are treating the case as a homicide, although the body is still missing.

Even in normal times, the sheriff's officers are stretched thin. There are 10 towns in the county with their own police departments, effectively doubling the number of officers in the area, and the department also has about 40 non-commissioned employees who staff the jail, handle records and perform other tasks. But the sheriff's office is responsible for all unincorporated areas – more than half the county. Every year, thousands of migrant workers come to Okanogan County's apple orchards, living in camps that become temporary towns – all of them needing law enforcement. The Canadian border creates its own law enforcement needs because of smuggling, and the county, Murray said, has all the normal criminal problems of any area.

The thousands of firefighters and National Guard members brought in this summer have been well behaved, Murray said, encouraged by a U.S. Forest Service policy that a crew will be shipped home if one member misbehaves.

Murray said he discourages his officers from putting in more than 12 hours at a stretch, no matter how much is going on. He believes stress has also been reduced because his office has been involved in the planning whenever fires have approached inhabited areas.

"We've not felt out of control," he said.

And he has discovered that sometimes taking a little more time and trouble at the beginning can save aggravation later. When the evacuations started, officers sometimes tried to force people to leave – something they cannot be made to do if they are adults able to take care of themselves – and told them that they would not be able to return until the danger of fire was over. They quickly learned that taking five or 10 minutes to explain the evacuation and giving residents passes so that they could get back into the area to retrieve possessions or examine their homes made the process much easier for both sides.

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