State Prepares For “New Normal” Wildfire Season

State Prepares For “New Normal” Wildfire Season
An aerial unit drops fire retardant on a grass fire in central Washington. The wildfire season so far has burned over 60,000 acres, and that number could climb rapidly depending on weather conditions. Photo: DNR.

This year’s wildfire season in Washington state has commenced on the heels of several interagency training academies hosted by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Lightning strikes in recent weeks are believed to have sparked a series of wildfires in the central part of the state, burning tens of thousands of acres and prompting various levels of evacuation for residents.

Currently, there are three ongoing wildfires in the state; the Mitchell Fire near Wenatchee, and the Rattlesnake Hills and the Silver Dollar fires near Yakima. All three have burned roughly 600 acres.

The Portland-based Northwest Geographic Area Coordination Center anticipates “warmer-than-usual temperatures are most likely for fire season,” and unfavorable weather patterns in peak months such as July and August might only worsen conditions. Last year’s season was much tamer than 2015 and 2014, but forestry experts have warned an “era of megafires” could be in store for Washington due to poor forest health.

Late last month, interagency personnel fought three major wildfires, the largest being the Sutherland Canyon Fire east of Wenatchee. Now 90 percent contained, it burned 29,433 acres.

DNR Spokesperson Joe Smille told Lens that “squirrelly” wind patterns in the region made it hard to predict where the wildfire would spread.

“Usually you can kind of see a northeast track there, but sometimes it blows elsewhere,” he said.

Also near Wenatchee was the Spartan Fire, which burned over 9,000 acres.

In 2015, Wenatchee was the scene of the Sleepy Hollow Fire, which burned 2,950 acres and destroyed 29 homes and three commercial businesses.

In Naches near Yakima, the South Wenas Fire consumed over 2,000 acres. Naches was the location of a DNR-hosted wildfire training academy in May. The most recent training academy finished up in Rainier this week.

Aside from the Stromberg Fire in May near Leavenworth that burned over 40 acres near a log yard, the wildfires have been confined primarily to prairie or grassland – the result of heavy winter snowfall and hot summer temperatures. The wildfires so far have affected Bureau of Land Management, DNR and private property. The U.S. Forest Service-managed national forests have been spared due to the remaining snow packs.

“The one benefit of a wetter, cooler spring is that the higher elevations are not as susceptible to fires right now,” Forest Service Spokesperson Traci Weaver said. “Our higher elevation timber areas aren’t quite that ripe yet. Typically grass fires are easier to manage than timber fires unless you get into terrain that’s deep and rocky.”

However, she added that lower elevation fires are more likely to occur near communities.

Following the training academies, DNR now has 527 seasonal firefighters and 1,400 firefighters total. In addition to increased recruitment, they’ve also ramped up the number of certifications earned by firefighters, which allow them to operate heavy equipment and serve in leadership positions.

This week, DNR delivered to a Okanogan fire district one of the 17 fire engines authorized for donation by the state legislature via HB 2010.

Residents concerned about wildfire implications for local air quality can visit Washington’s Air Monitoring Network.

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