The 2021 wildfire season has intensified dramatically in the past month and is now entering a critical period during which weather conditions can keep fires mild or transform them into raging infernos.
Since the Fourth of July, numerous large wildfires have broken out in Eastern and Central Washington, prompting the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to implement a burn ban as well as close its recreational lands in Eastern Washington.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a statement that “our firefighters are already stretched thin fighting major fires across our state. We must take reasonable steps – and make sacrifices – in order to protect them and our communities.”
There are currently 16 large wildfires in the state, the largest so far being the Dry Gulch Fire that has consumed 80,000 acres. In total, more than 256,000 acres have burned this season. While many ongoing wildfires like Dry Gulch have been mostly contained, the latest weather forecasts indicate extreme fire risk that could ignite new fires in areas with very dry fuel loads.
DNR’s weather report noted that “conditions are still largely very dry for the east side of the state,” noting that areas like the Kittitas valley are also likely to get 25-35 mph winds that can create fast-moving fires.
Meanwhile, DNR’s fuels update report classifies much of Northeastern and South-Central Washington to be at “severe fire danger” due to bone-dry fuels, warning that “we will see fire danger reverse and begin climbing again into the middle of next week. Fire activity can subsequently increase. Expect extreme fire behavior for any new start (fires).”
Precipitation during late July and early August can decide whether the remainder of the wildfire season is mild or severe, as it moistens “100-hour” fuels that are lighter and typically ignited by lightning strikes. With even an inch or two of rain, those fuels are too wet to catch on fire. That was the case in 2019, which concluded as one of the mildest in a decade. Although lightning is not the primary cause of wildfires in the state, the most severe fires are caused by lightning because they occur in areas often inaccessible for firefighters conducting an initial attack.
DNR’s July 25 morning report concluded that east of the Cascades “lightning over the next few days is likely to ignite some new fires, but it looks like there will be sufficient rainfall to avoid high risk of new large fires.”