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Despite mildest wildfire season in years, stakeholders urge caution

Despite mildest wildfire season in years, stakeholders urge caution

Although the final tally has yet to be made, this year’s wildfire season in Washington state is likely to be the mildest in terms of acreage burned since 2013. At the same time, private and public stakeholders caution against reading into the development as it offers little insight into how severe or mild upcoming seasons will be.

Washington experienced an unusual amount of precipitation in July. The state mobilization plan that calls in state resources when local ones are insufficient was last activated on Aug. 2, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the last large wildfire response by the agency was to the Spring Coulee Fire on Sept. 1; the blaze consumed 107 acres.

Wildland Fire Advisory Committee Chair and former DNR Southeast Regional Manager Gary Berndt told Lens at the committee’s Sept. 26 meeting that he couldn’t recall a season since the state mobilization plan was created in 1993 that it hasn’t been activated between mid-August and September. A joint effort between the State Fire Defense Committee and the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the mobilization plan is activated when all local and mutual aid resources have been expended.

DNR reports that this year 130,000 acres burned, though that figure only applies to wildfires; a statewide total is expected later. It is not yet known what percentage of that acreage was forestland versus shrub or grassland, nor is it known how much the wildfire season has cost DNR.

Yet the amount of known acreage burned this year is significantly less than in 2018, when 1,744 wildfires burned 428,834 acres, roughly the same as the 2016 season, and air quality fell throughout the entire state due to smoke; in 2017, 235,348 acres burned. During the 2017 wildfire season, the state mobilization plan was activated 11 times starting Aug. 2, while in 2016 the plan was activated during that same timeframe a total of 13 times, five of which occurred on the same day.

If the current estimate by DNR of acreage burned doesn’t change drastically when other wildfires are accounted for, it could be the lowest amount since the 2013 wildfire season, which had 1,527 wildfires that burned 152,603.

Yet, Berndt cautioned that the wildfire severity can vary year by year. For example, the 2005 wildfire season had a mere 28,698 acres burned, while the next year 303,289 acres burned. In 2011, just under 20,000 acres burned, while the next year’s wildfire season experienced 1,336 wildfires that burned 228,452 acres.

Berndt added that this year’s mild season shouldn’t downplay the long-term urgency to address poor forestland health due to insects, disease and fuel loads. During the Sept. 26 committee meeting, Suncadia Forestry and Firewise Coordinator Tony Craven noted an uptick in the number of trees he’s seen die.

“Even though we got lots of rain this year… it is finally catching up with us – the past 3-4 years of (beetle) infestation or drought, and finally the bugs,” he said. “It could portend a lot of not nice things in the coming years.”

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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