At this time last year state, federal and local agencies were battling wildfires that forced the evacuation of rural central Washington communities and temporarily shut down parts of Interstate 90 near Ellensburg. Although more acres have burned so far this season compared to 2018, recent precipitation has given firefighters respite from wildfire activity. However, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) cautions that the favorable situation doesn’t alter long-term drought conditions caused by lack of rain earlier this year.
According to the state Department of Ecology, the period between March and May was the 13th driest on record since 1895. The Predictive Services National Interagency Fire Center seven-day forecast reports that new moisture has left most, if not all, of Washington state with either normal or minimal wildfire conditions. For the moment, the Incident Information System reports no ongoing wildfires in the state. In the last week, DNR has responded to several small fires such as the Swanson Mill Fire near Oroville that burned over 300 acres and the Riggs Canyon Fire near Kittitas that burned 75 acres.
At the same time, NIFC’s monthly forecast anticipates warmer than usual temperatures later this summer.
“We got that little bit of wet patch, but the fuels on the ground is still not soaking rains,” Deputy Communications Director Bobbi Cussins said. “If we get a random hot day, things can dry out fast.”
Cussins added that the recent rainfall might make the situation worse because it regrows grass that later dries up and is easily ignored. “That is a concern. A week or two of hot temperatures and you have more fuel.”
At this time last year, 616 fires had burned a total 25,769 acres of land. So far this season, 566 wildfires have burned 28,115 acres. However, only 2,676 acres have been DNR land. Cussins said that the added moisture helped keep the Fourth of July weekend wildfire activity unusually low. “It was just the damp weather.”
In fact, the level of activity is currently low enough for DNR that it has sent resources including its climatologist to aid fire suppression in Alaska, according to Cussins.
“It’s really nice that we have a small break to be able to pay people back, because they’re the people who come to us when our fire season hits. This is a nice way to be able to say ‘Hey, we’ve got your back too. We’ll be calling on them, I’m sure.”
In addition to new full-time firefighters/forest health workers, DNR has recently augmented their firefighting arsenal with a new 320-gallon water tank for its helicopters which allows better navigation of urban areas along the I-5 corridor compared to the traditional long-line Bambi bucket.
In a video, DNR Pilot Colby Hamon said with the new tank “we can actually make some turns a lot quicker to get to the water and bring the water to the fire faster, as opposed to have the long lines hanging down and having to deal with that.”
The state agency is now pre-positioning equipment and personnel in areas such as eastern Washington where lighting strikes are common in hard-to-access areas with high fuel loads.
“Mother nature could have a big lighting storm and there you go,” Cussins said. “When all the fires happened in March, we had teams ready to go; they fought those fires and it turned out ok, but that’s…looking at fire season a little more holistically.”