Washington state’s wildfire season dramatically intensified this past weekend with more than 20 times the number of acres burned in the past week than the rest of the entire season to date. After experiencing what was, until now, one of the mildest wildfire seasons in the last decade, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is now battling nine large wildfires that have reduced air quality and consumed most of a small southeastern Washington town.
Governor Jay Inslee described the situation at a Sept. 8 press conference as an “unprecedented and heartbreaking event,” noting the speed with which the wildfires spread.
In just 24 hours, 58 new wildfires broke out in the state, though most of them have since been extinguished. The largest currently is the Cold Springs Fire in the Okanogan National Forest. The wildfire broke out on Sept. 6 and so far has burned 140,000 acres. Prior to that, the largest was the Evans Canyon Fire that has burned 78,000 acres; the fire is now 70 percent contained. Wildfires have also burned homes in Pierce County and consumed most of Malden, a small town in Whitman County.
In just the past 48 hours, wildfires have burned 330,000 acres compared to approximately 15,000 acres to date this season. That now places 2020 alongside the 2017 and 2018 seasons in terms of severity.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said at the Sept. 8 press conference that the agency has now closed all of its recreational areas in Eastern Washington, warning that DNR lacks resources to take on another large wildfire.
DNR Spokesperson Thomas Kyle-Milward told Lens that the turn of events this weekend occurred due to hurricane-level winds that swept through the state from the east. Additionally, the dust and smoke from the wind temporarily grounded DNR’s aerial units, preventing them from conducting initial suppression.
Franz emphasized the role of aerial units as the “backbone of our initial attack response. When we see smoke, we are immediately launching our helicopters and planes.”
The situation bolsters arguments made by forestry experts and DNR officials that wildfire severity is often determined by numerous elements including wind speed, but also recent precipitation, lighting strikes, and geography. While prepositioning and the initial attack can keep fires from growing, conditions on the ground can ultimately be the determining factor.
“We knew conditions were going to be ripe for one of the worst fire days of the season,” Kyle-Milward said. “Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where the wind came in, and the worst that we predicted happened. We’ve had those same drought conditions for August and September. We knew fuels were dried,” adding that wind was the final ingredient needed for severe wildfires
The latest weather report from DNR Meteorologist Josh Clark anticipates strong winds and a strong cold front driving down temperatures in Eastern Washington and simultaneously lowering humidity.
“We are urging every single citizen and resident in Washington to do their part..and prevent any starts of fires,” Franz said.