The 2021 wildfire season in Washington state remains mild despite record-breaking temperatures over the past week, with 1,800 acres burned according to the most recent report from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). There are also currently no large wildfires in the state, despite an unusually high number of total wildfires this year (900) compared to other years at this point in the season.
The current situation is one that agency officials attribute in part to expanded use of aerial units during initial attacks. However, DNR Wildfire Communications Manager Thomas Kyle-Milward said they’re still bracing for “a longer fire season than normal, a tougher season than normal. We’re just trying to be prepared for that.”
While DNR firefighters have been spared having to combat large wildfires during excessively hot weather, Kyle-Milward said “we’re not resting on our laurels. We’ve still seen some pretty scary fires that could have gotten out of hand. Conditions are just really ripe right now.”
He added that the low amount of acreage burned so far has been the result of rapid responses by aerial units during the initial attack, which keeps fires small and also frees up ground personnel to respond to other incidents.
“We’re going to continue to use strong initial attacks (to) keep them small and to wipe them off the board, as it were, as quickly as possible,” he said. “It’s a more expensive way to fight fire, but it’s a more effective way to fight fire. It’s been worth the investment.”
Thanks to increased funding from the state legislature, DNR has ordered two new planes and hired 100 new firefighters, though they won’t be ready to deploy until next year’s season.
“It’s been tricky using that funding to get any kind of immediate impact for this fire season,” Kyle-Milward said.
The “fast and furious” turn of last year’s wildfire season gives plenty of reasons not to read too much into the season so far. The 2020 season was on track to be, like 2019, one of the mildest in a decade—only to have large wildfires to break out during Labor Day weekend, burning more than 800,000 acres. Kyle-Milward said one of the reasons those fires spread was because they were unable to deploy aerial units due to windstorms, a situation that could potentially occur again this year.
Forestry experts have noted that precipitation during critical weeks in late July and early August can prevent wildfires by keeping light fuel loads moist. Among the top ingredients for severe wildfires are a long dry spell, lots of light fuels, and an ignition typically caused by a lightning strike.
Washington may soon have all three. On top of the high temperatures, the latest DNR weather forecast notes that Eastern Washington is expected to get isolated thunderstorms and strong winds in areas like Ellensburg and Wenatchee. In response to the record-setting heat, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz on June 24 issued burn restrictions for DNR land, while all outdoor burning has been banned in all DNR-managed forestlands except in Island, San Juan, Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
“Can we all agree that it’s too hot to be lighting anything on fire?” she wrote in a June 28 tweet.
Kyle-Milward also noted the severe water drought conditions affecting much of the state and causing fuel loads to be abnormally dry.
“Fuels are drying out significantly faster than they normally do,” he said. “We are at a level of dryness that it would be by August.”
With most fires caused by humans, DNR is urging residents to exercise caution while celebrating the Fourth of July this weekend. Among the tips recommended by DNR include:
- Ensure dirt bikes or ATV’s have operating spark arrestors
- Completely put out campfires, where permitted
- Reduce dry fuels around home
- Remove debris from roofs and gutters
“Folks are going to want to play with fireworks,” Kyle-Milward said. “We push the message that in this kind of heat (and) in this kind of dryness, please don’t be the person who causes a spark.”