Bracing for statewide wildfire season

This year’s wildfire season may be severe on both sides of the Cascades and could stretch existing resources. Photo: freepik.com

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is preparing for what could be a severe wildfire season on both sides of the Cascades. While recent years have had the major wildfires confined primarily to central and eastern Washington, western Washington experienced more than 50 wildfires during just one week in March. That situation could repeat itself if dry, hot weather persists into the summer.

In the short-term, the National Interagency Wildfire Center (NFIC) forecast shows minimal to normal conditions throughout Washington. The seasonal forecast through August anticipates a delay to the wildfire season in higher elevation areas “due to preexisting weather conditions and slower than average snowpack melting rates.”

Despite the recent hot temperatures in the Seattle area, the seasonal forecast noted the water drought in other parts of the state has improved due to precipitation. However, the wildfire season west of the Cascade is expected to start next month, earlier than usual. Earlier this month, several counties across the state imposed temporary burn bans due to high temperatures.

The forecast notes that “if drying continues due to warmth in May, western Washington appears to be at risk for possible burn escapes during dry, windy conditions.”

This means DNR will have to cover more of Washington than in the past, says Public Information Officer Joe Smillie. “Resources get stretched. We have resources on the westside, but usually we put most of what we got on the eastside, because it’s drier and hotter and windier. This year we may have to be a little more thoughtful about that.”

At the same time, DNR now has additional money to invest in firefighting. Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz submitted a budget request of $55 million to the state legislature for fire suppression and forest health. State lawmakers appropriated $50 million, half of which will go toward forest health. Although the money won’t be available until July 1, it will enable the state agency to purchase more fire engines and surplus older engines for local fire districts. While they haven’t hired more personnel, DNR has obtained an additional helicopter, along with two aerial units under contract.

Although 2015 still holds the record for the most acres burned in a season, the last two wildfire seasons have led to hazardous air conditions. In 2017, a total of 1,346 wildfires burned 404,223 acres, while 2018 had 1,732 wildfires affect 438,868 acres, and 84 percent of the 2018 fires were human-caused.

In preparation for this wildfire season, DNR is hosting interagency training academies throughout the state. The first academy was held May 15-20 in Naches; two more are planned in Rainier and Deer Valley.

Since 2014, state lawmakers have passed numerous laws to improve initial response times as well as the health of state forestland. The Wildland Fire Advisory Committee created in 2015 has since issued recommendations on ways to enhance initial responses. HB 1711 approved in 2017 directs DNR to prioritize its working forests during wildfires.

“Our forests – that’s our main business,” Smillie said. “That’s our constitutional mandate. That’s frankly why we’ve got into the firefighter business to begin with, to protect that timber. (However,) when communities move closer to those forestlands, life takes precedent over property.”

HB 1784 approved this year orders the state agency to strategize forest health treatment projects that offer “fire breaks” that can enable firefighters to defend forestland or nearby communities.

Smillie said those policies “come into play when we’re laying out the prescribed fires,” another forest restoration practice the state legislature has directed DNR to ramp up following a successful pilot project in 2016 via HB 2928.

 

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TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper. His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists. A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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