Governor Jay Inslee on Wednesday declared a drought emergency in most of the state as the 2021 wildfire season continues to escalate. Although droughts had already been declared in some counties, the new emergency applies everywhere except the Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett metro areas where sufficient water supply is expected.
Meanwhile, large wildfires have broken out in numerous parts of Washington, including the Dry Gulch Fire in southeastern Washington and the Red Apple Fire near Monitor along Highway 2, prompting evacuation orders; the two fires are 20 percent and 10 percent contained, respectively. Although the season remained mild during the record-heat waves, the number of acres burned has increased since then to 140,000.
The conditions in much of the state are ripe for severe wildfires. At a July 14 press conference State Climatologist Nick Bond said that although temperatures have gone down in the Puget Sound region, elsewhere they remain higher than normal. A state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) weather briefing warns that humidity will also remain low in much of Eastern Washington.
Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson noted at the press conference that despite snow pack levels in the mountains that are well above average, the state has experienced one of the driest springs on record.
“The record-breaking temperatures have only made things worse,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said at the press conference. “I think this is likely to be the worst (season) of the last five years, and we know what it is likely to look like.”
At the press conference Inslee attributed the wildfires and record heat to climate change via greenhouse gas emissions. However, University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences Professor Cliff Mass said in a recent podcast that climate change played a “minor role” in the historic heat wave, which was primarily caused by an “unusually strong and persistent area of high pressure over the Northwest” originating with the Pacific jet stream.
The severity of wildfire seasons depends on a wide variety of long-term and short-term factors. A 2014 report by DNR found an estimated 10 million acres of forestland in Eastern Washington faced “serious threats” to its health due to “decades of fire suppression and past management practices.” Forestry experts have concluded that mismanagement is the primary cause of the state’s severe wildfires due to accumulation of heavy forest fuel loads and overgrowth of small-diameter trees.
At the same time, seasonal weather elements such as precipitation and wind play decisive roles and as a result contribute to inconsistent years in terms of severity. The 2019 wildfire turned out to be the mildest in a decade after an unusually high amount of rainfall in August. The 2020 season was also proving to be equally as mild before wildfires broke out over Labor Day weekend, making it one of the worst in the past decade in terms of acreage burned.
DNR is currently attempting to treat 1.25 million acres by 2037 as part of its 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan. According to the agency’s Forest Health & Resiliency Division, a total of 311,797 acres were treated between 2017-2020. Last year, 78,000 acres were treated in Eastern Washington, and 6,423 acres of that was using prescribed burns. None of the prescribed burns took place on DNR-managed land. A total of 22,600 acres were treated on DNR’s State Trust Lands. However, DNR notes that these figures are total acreage treated, meaning the figures could include land treated twice with both prescribed burns and precommercial thinning.