As this year’s relatively mild wildfire season tapers down, state lawmakers and Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials may consider the benefits of investing in equipment that can better predict lighting strikes.
Although people are responsible for most wildfires in Washington, fires started by lightning cause considerable damage. In 2015, one million acres were burned by 1,541 fires. Of those, 70 percent were human-caused. However, five lightning-caused wildfires that eventually merged into the Okanogan Complex alone burned 304,782 acres.
This year, the largest wildfire so far has been the Sutherland Canyon fire, which burned nearly 38,000 acres in July, also the result of a lightning strike. In total, wildfires have burned 136,000 acres as of Aug. 22. That is less than last year’s Range 12 fire near Yakima, which alone burned 176,600 acres.
One of the reasons for the tamer fires has been the improved responses and interagency cooperation, says DNR Spokesperson Joe Smillie. However, they can also better anticipate where lightning strikes are likely to occur and pre-position firefighters and resources accordingly, he added.
“Our weather tools are more sophisticated (than before),” he said.
The predictions are based on satellite data that indicate where low-pressure and high-pressure systems collide.
Wildfires caused by lightning strikes are often larger because they occur in areas of the state and along terrain difficult for firefighters to access. “That’s something we’ve put a lot of focus on. Human caused fires are more accessible. It’s near some sort of infrastructure, whereas lighting tends to strike in the middle of a sage field or on top of a mountain,” Smillie said, adding that firefighters have been lucky with the decrease in lightning strikes this season.
The worst of this year’s wildfires appears to be over. The latest seasonal outlook from the Predictive Services National Interagency Fire Center predicts normal weather conditions in Washington for September and October.
“I’d say we’re at the hump,” Smillie said. “We’re just sitting on top of the crest.”
However, if future wildfire seasons prove to be far less hospitable, upgraded weather equipment could help improve initial fire responses, one of several goals for the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee. DNR sought additional funding for that this year in its capital budget request to the legislature.
Meanwhile, the state’s largest active fire highlights a different problem, one DNR officials and state lawmakers are looking to solve. The Diamond Creek fire north of Winthrop in the Okanogan National Forest has burned 30,581 acres. Unlike Sutherland, it was human-caused. However, it is not expected to be fully contained for two more months due to the enormous amount of fuel that has accumulated.
According to the incident report, fuels “consist of a mix of Fire, Spruce, and Pine. Heavy dead and down fuels are very receptive to spotting due to critically dry fuel moistures.”
The fire is just north of where DNR carried out several prescribed burns late last year as part of a pilot project approved by the legislature. The burns are intended to reduce fuel loads that contribute to poor forest health.
A 2014 report by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service found that nearly 2.7 million acres in eastern Washington required some form of active management. It concluded that “reducing hazardous fuels would substantially reduce the probability, extent, and intensity of wildfire in the watershed, leading to quantifiable cost savings. In short, strategic fuel reduction treatments are a good investment and produce multiple benefits to landowners, residents, and watershed interests and beneficiaries.”
Experts have been warning about the dangers of high fuel loads in Washington forestland for more than a decade. A 2006 Forestry Journal paper warned that “the cost of fighting fire could and should be considered a cost of not removing high fuel loads…If the negative impacts that result from crown fires were fully reflected in the market, there would be high motivation to avoid them, providing necessary incentive to remove excessive fuel loads in spite of the cost.”