Washington wildfire season intensifies

Washington wildfire season intensifies
Dry weather and a high number of wildfires have stretched thin the state Department of Natural Resources, leading Governor Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency due to wildfire threats. Photo: Department of Natural Resources

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has responded to nearly 900 wildfires so far this season. Already, that is more than the total number of wildfires (891) last year. Also, over a third of those wildfires are in Western Washington. The high number of wildfires has stretched DNR resources to the max, prompting Governor Jay Inslee to once more declare a state of emergency Tuesday and activating National Guard units to assist in fire suppression.

State of emergencies due to wildfires have been declared each year since 2014.

“The threat to life and property from existing wildfires is significant and could cause extensive damage to homes, public facilities, businesses, public utilities, and infrastructure impacting the life and health of people throughout Washington State,” the proclamation states.

Although the wildfire count has already surpassed that of the 2017 season, strategic deployment and aerial attacks have been effective at keeping them small. DNR reports that 94 percent of wildfires have been under 10 acres. So far this season, 113,000 acres have burned.

However, DNR reports that while they’re kept the flames down, the firefighting efforts are “exhausting available resources.” Within the Washington-Oregon region, all Type 1 and Type 2 incident response teams are fully committed to combating 18 large fires.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a statement that “the efforts of our firefighters have been nothing short of heroic, but the sheer number and geographic range of wildfires have stretched our resources thin. Our state is at a very high-risk for even more wildfires, and we need additional resources to keep our communities safe.”

Meanwhile, DNR reports 96 percent of the state is experiencing drought-like conditions, and the National Weather Service (NWS) says that since May 1, Sea-Tac has received only 0.8 inches of rain, making it the driest period on record between May and July.

“This has left western Washington streams running very low, impacting water supplies,” NWS’s tweeted on its account. “Many streams are near or below record low daily flows. A number of agencies have asked their citizens to voluntarily restrict water use.

NWS also wrote in a tweet that the hot, dry weather has also contributed to the unusual number of fires breaking out in Western Washington. “Fuels are very dry with some areas experiencing near or record values. Maybe that is why things keep catching on fire around here.”

DNR Communications Manager Janet Pierce told Lens that “we have a huge concern about complacency on the westside. We’ve all gotten used to our cloud days, but we are extremely dry. We’re drier on the west (side) of the mountains than the east, and that’s alarming.”

The westside’s growing vulnerability to wildfires was demonstrated in 2015, when a drought enabled the Paradise Fire to break out in the Olympic National Park’s tropical rainforest, the wettest place in the continental U.S. The wildfire lingered for months and burned 2,796 acres, making it the largest wildfire in the park’s history.

“If a rain forest can burn…it can really burn this year,” Pierce said.

Since then, DNR has placed three helicopters along the I-5 corridor. There are also plans to have two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters prepare for initial attacks on wildfires, along with five 20-person crews in northeast Washington to fight current wildfires.

To keep personnel freed up to respond to new wildfires, DNR is also working to quickly transition team types working on existing fires. “We’re constantly assessing where they’re going to go next,” Pierce said.

Another dilemma DNR could face is insufficient resources to respond to wildfires in remote areas where forest health is also poor. As backup, DNR can call up out-of-state fire personnel from states such as Hawaii and Florida, as well as Canada.

“Come (later in) August, a lot of firefighters are going to need some rest and that’s when we pull resources from other states,” Pierce said. “We are on high alert right now, because August just started, and it’s like we already had an August.”


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