After weeks of hot temperatures and statewide smoke cover, decreasing temperatures and recent rainfall indicate the worst of this year’s wildfire season is over. However, Washington firefighters continue to battle new and existing wildfires across the state that are compounded by unusually dry weather conditions.
“We had a few pretty quick moving grass fires (recently),” state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Spokesperson Joe Smillie said. “(But) we’re in a little bit better shape now, especially with the rain we got on the west side. We’re still looking at some wind coming through on the east side.”
So far this year 1,428 wildfires have burned 465,000 acres, surpassing last year’s 404,000 acres. In comparison, between 2007-2016 the average wildfire season burned 262, 220 acres.
That 10-year average includes the 2015 wildfire season, which consumed more than one million acres. DNR estimates the 2015 wildfire season also emitted 24 million metric tons of carbon. That is more than four times the amount put out that same year by the Centralia coal-fire power plant, the state’s largest industry source of carbon.
The DNR estimates also reveal how the type of land burned determines the environmental impacts. According to data provided by DNR, the 2014 and 2016 wildfire seasons burned 386,000 and 308,000 respectively, yet the estimated carbon emitted in 2014 is four times greater (6.2 million to 1.4 million). The 2014 wildfire season included the Carlton Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in state history that burned 256,000 acres in the Okanogan National Forest
According to the NW Interagency Coordination Center, 274,301 acres burned was grassland, while 190,919 acres was forestland that typically contains greater fuel loads.
The latest seven-day outlook by the Predictive Services National Interagency Fire Center (PSNIC) shows Washington state is at either minimal or normal levels of wildfire risk and no regions with high wildfire potential. The state Department of Ecology reports all but a small section of northeast Washington at good air quality levels, a rapid change from as recently as Friday when parts of eastern Washington still had unhealthy smoke levels.
It’s a dramatic change from mid-August when intense smoke created hazardous air conditions for much of the state and only a handful of west side cities had normal air quality.
The PSNIC also reports the state experienced both abnormally warm and dry temperatures along with drought-level conditions throughout the Pacific Northwest that are expected to remain through November. DNR continues to impose burn restrictions in more than a dozen counties.
Smillie said the drought has not affected wildfire suppression efforts, because they are exempt from water use rules.
Despite the drier conditions, fire personnel have been able to keep 90 percent of wildfires limited to 10 acres or smaller. DNR and other fire agencies are still fighting to contain the Cougar Creek Fire north of Leavenworth that has triggered evacuation notices for the small community of Plain. The wildfire has burned more than 42,000 acres and is 78 percent contained. The situation has sufficiently improved to where DNR will transition to a smaller management team.
One ongoing challenge for fire personnel was the wildfire’s location on steep terrain made it extremely difficult to attack the fire directly. Along with aerial units, firefighters dug containment lines while conducting “back burning” in front of the fire to deprive it of new fuel.
Firefighters have faced a similar issue with the Maple Fire on the Olympia Peninsula, one of 1,209 human-caused wildfires this year. Started in early August, it has burned 3,000 acres and is only 39 percent contained. Its placement near the Jefferson Ridge makes it tricky for firefighters to reach.
Because of that, the overall strategy – besides an established containment line and monitoring by fire personnel – is to let the rain eventually put it out, Smillie said. “It’s (already) burning uphill toward cooler weather spots.”
Other major ongoing wildfires include the McCleod Fire near Mazama, which has burned 22,600 acres and is 43 percent contained.
Although some areas affected by wildfires this year were forestland slated for health restoration work, Smillie said “nothing really significant” was affected. “We’re still powering through with the overall plan.”