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Rain tempers wildfire season

Unusually high amount of rainfall in eastern Washington in the first part of August has helped keep this year’s wildfire season mild – even in the face of recent lightning strikes. Although the rest of the month is expected to be drier and hotter than usual, weather forecasts anticipate normal wildfire conditions throughout the region.

As of right now, there are only two active wildfires reported in Washington by the Incident Information System (ISS), which tracks wildfires nationally. The Williams Flat Fire has burned 45,000 acres and is 87 percent contained, while the Devore Creek Fire has consumed 450 acres and has yet to be contained.

It’s a far cry from mid-August last year, when the entire state was shrouded in wildfire smoke, Governor Jay Inslee had declared a wildfire emergency and roughly 276,229 acres had burned. In 2017, a single wildfire burned In comparison; this year’s season has burned around 130,000 acres, on par with the 2017 wildfire season. Although forecasts had previously warned of high wildfire potential on the westside, only 665 acres of the 130,000 acres were located west of the Cascades.

One likely factor in the reduced acreage burned this year has been recent precipitation in eastern and central Washington. According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC), not only did those regions receive 300-400 percent above average precipitation for this time of year, but the rainfall put a halt to the Williams Flat Fire in northeastern Washington after the area received 1.5 inches of rain.

The rain also occurred at the same time a thunderstorm produced 20,000 lighting strikes igniting approximately 400 wildfires, including the Devore Creek Fire. NWCC reports that the rainfall also moistened lighter fuels in different parts of the state.

For the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), fewer and milder wildfires will mean it can commit more resources to an initial attack. According to DNR Spokesperson Joe Smillie, the state agency has managed to keep 94.7 percent of all wildfires they’ve responded to at 10 acres or less.

“We’ve seen a pretty good number of starts,” he said. “We’ve just been able to get to them. The moisture definitely helped them stay small. If you’re not spending weeks on one fire, you can go back and be ready for the initial attack dispatches.”

Although DNR has expanded its firefighting resources through additional funding from the state legislature and is working to restore forestland health, the severity of a wildfire can be determined by weather conditions such as heat, humidity, wind speed and direction, as well as the topography and how easily accessible it is to firefighters.

“When it gets super dry and you get the ignitions and winds behind it, that’s where we’ve seen it blow up in past years,” Smillie said.

However, he added that improved interagency coordination helped contain the Cheney Complex Fire in late July. The four separate fires burned approximately 170 acres and promoted Level 2 evacuation notices.  According to a July 24 ISS report: the “speed and gallant” efforts of DNR, the Spokane County Fire District 3 and other fire agencies within the county “worked to avoid any damage to approximately 30 structures that were threatened by the encroaching fire.”

“Having the ability to bombard it with aircraft and have all those resources to run fast kept that from growing together into a big complex,” Smillie said.

At the same time, the lightning strikes earlier this month may have ignited fuels that for right now are smoldering and could later lead to a wildfire. Smillie said the agency will be conducting recon flights over areas where the strikes occurred and will check for heat temperatures.

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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