After a surge in major wildfires across the state last month, state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials say there’s “cautious optimistic” about the remainder of the wildfire season. Although cooler temperatures in the past several days have provided some relief for firefighters to address the more significant wildfires, changes in the weather can still easily bring about a rapid escalation.
“Conditions are a little bit more favorable,” DNR Wildfire Communications Manager Thomas Kyle-Milward said. “We’re not counting our chickens yet, but it’s definitely been a nice bit of a reprieve. I think there’s some cautious optimism that we might be seeing more of those less harsh weather conditions.”
The season so far has been one of constantly changing conditions from mild to severe, often abruptly. In early July there were no large fires and only 1,800 acres burned. Days later a number of wildfires broke out in central Washington followed by others in the eastern part of the state. Governor Jay Inslee soon declared a state of emergency in response to both the wildfires as well as an ongoing drought affecting all but certain parts of the Puget Sound region.
The increased wildfire activity in early August prompted DNR Wildland Fire and Forest Health Liaison Allen Lebovitz to cancel a planned meeting for the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, which typically meets in Cle Elum.
“Given the wildland fire predictions for this summer and fall and how fire conditions appear to be validating them at this time, we anticipate a long and challenging wildland fire situation in the months to come, possibly well into October,” Lebovitz wrote in an email.
One major factor will be wind speeds that, if too strong, can ground DNR’s fleet of 16 aerial units that have kept the historically high number of fires from getting out of control. Although there was rainfall earlier this month, it also came with lightning strikes that at point ignited 70 wildfires in a three-day span.
The latest figures from DNR show that there have been 1,059 wildfires this season on DNR-managed land, compared to 890 fires during the 2015 wildfire season; that year 750,000 acres burned on DNR land, compared to 230 so far this year.
DNR officials have previously noted the role of aerial units during the 2020 wildfire season, which was on track to be one of the mildest in decades before weather grounded the fleet during Labor Day weekend.
“We weren’t able to keep our birds in the air because of the wind,” Kyle-Milward said. “We’re sitting pretty good right now. Obviously, last year proved that any two-week span can upend your progress that you’ve made.”