Washington leaders prepare for busy wildfire season

It’s only late June, so Washington has yet to see any large, high-profile wildfires, but state leaders say they are expecting a wildfire season worse than normal. At a press event last week, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said the state had already fought 315 fires around the state.

Those include significant fires in Eastern and Central Washington and wildfires in April in Western Washington, which is months earlier than normal, Franz said. The state already has deployed aircraft and other equipment so personnel will be able to get to fires soon after they start.

“It’s going to be a pretty challenging fire season,” Franz said.

It’s not just the eastern part of the state that is bearing the brunt of the wildfires, according to state officials.

“Historically, Western Washington has had really benign fire activity. In the last five years, that’s been a categorical shift,” (said Aaron Schmidt, assistant fire operations manager for the state Department of Natural Resources). “So much so that we are staging three helicopters in Western Washington this year.”

Schmidt says there are a number of things contributing to the rise in wildfire activity in Western Washington.

“Western Washington is seeing drier fuel conditions, we are seeing different onshore flows, our marine moisture layer is not there like it usually has been,” Schmidt said. “We are seeing multiple 100-acre fires in southwest Washington, and northwest Washington, which is very atypical. It lends itself to a changing fire environment.”

That’s not to say that residents can’t do anything to ease the problem.

Humans cause around 75 percent of wildfires while lightning causes the rest. Franz urged caution when engaging in activities ranging from barbecuing to driving motorbikes — all of which could spark a fire. Five Eastern Washington counties are already experiencing high fire risks and another two are ranked by Natural Resources as at moderate risk.

While camping, fires are allowed only in areas without a burn restriction, in approved fire pits and shovels and a bucket of water should be kept nearby. Never walk away form a smoldering campfire.

Gov. Jay Inslee recommended that residents near forests manage their land to make it less susceptible to fire.

The Firewise program, which shows how to reduce the combustible material around homes, can produce dramatic results, Inslee said. He was recently in Eastern and Central Washington, where he visited areas that had homes that cleared those materials survived recent fires intact, while a neighbor’s home was burned to the ground.

Learn more about the state’s Firewise program.