Early fire conditions mark start of ‘a very long’ season

Washington’s heightened fire risk west of the Cascades is unusual this early in the year and is worrying officials.

By: - June 6, 2023 5:03 pm
Volunteer wildfire firefighters at a wildfire training course. Two people walk towards a fire burning. Most of the photo is smoke.

Volunteer firefighters manage a live burn with drip torches during a wildfire training course on May 8, 2021 in Brewster, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Hot and dry conditions in western Washington have already prompted a fire risk warning, brush fires in Vancouver, burn bans in some counties and strict admonishments from officials to watch for sparks and extinguish campfires properly.

And the hottest months of the year are still ahead.

The early fire risk west of the Cascades is worrying officials who are in the midst of their fire prep. And if hot, dry conditions continue as predictions show, Washington is facing a late summer where the entire state will be at an above-normal risk for significant blazes.

“We could be in this for a very long time,” said Angie Lane, assistant division manager for the Department of Natural Resources wildland fire management.

This is the earliest since 2006 that the National Weather Service in Seattle has issued a red flag warning west of the Cascades. The warning, in effect until 10 p.m. Tuesday, alerts residents that dry and windy conditions could easily start or spread fires. 

Jacob DeFlitch, meteorologist at the National Weather Service, said the agency has concerns of heightened fire risk Tuesday and Wednesday. The greatest threat is the South Sound into Thurston and Lewis Counties. 

DeFlitch said there could be clouds and a bit of rain later in the week, which could help alleviate some of the risks, but a red flag warning this early in the season is “unusual.” 

Earlier this year, predictions showed Washington might fare OK this summer, Lane said. The snowpack was higher-than-normal, and the state was making its way out of a drought. 

But then it got hot. May brought record high temperatures and very little precipitation for western Washington. 

In the last month, DeFlitch said many parts of the region received less than 5% of the precipitation they normally see. A lack of precipitation dries out grasses, shrubs and trees – all fuel for fires.

The dryness plus the windy conditions expected early this week puts the state at a heightened risk for rapidly spreading flames.

The Department of Natural Resources is in the middle of its preparations for the wildfire season, Lane said. That includes finalizing its suppression plans and training firefighters.

Washington is currently at a preparedness level two out of five, a scale used by fire officials to determine how many resources are available to fight fires compared to the likelihood of a fire breaking out, Lane said.

It’s a “very active fire response,” which is not normal this early in the year on the west side of the state.

Eastern Washington is still relying on its snowpack and a wet spring to keep fire risks in check, but those won’t last forever, Lane said. The low-elevation grasslands in the Columbia Basin, for example, have already been active wildfire sites. 

Resources to fight fires could be spread thin if both the eastern and western reaches of the state are badly parched this summer.

The department has enough staff on board and resources to deal with the current situation, Lane said, but her concern is for the sustainability of the staff, if conditions worsen.

The department has received new funding in recent years to increase their supplies, and those resources could come into service this year. Under 2021 legislation, the department added new firefighting aircraft, a new camera system that can help detect fires and more firefighters.

To help with wildfire suppression, officials are leaning on the public to take action and avoid risky behavior, such as dropping cigarette butts or parking vehicles on dry grass. 

Fire officials are encouraging everyone to check local restrictions on burning before heading to a campsite and lighting a campfire. Whoever manages the land might have their own restrictions on how and when to burn. 

Campers should never leave a fire unattended and always have a shovel or bucket of water close by, according to the department. 

When using equipment like lawnmowers or weed-whackers, fire officials warn against setting them down in dry grass where anything might easily ignite. And they say cars or trucks towing trailers should ensure that no chains are dragging on the asphalt as one spark could set ablaze the dry grass near the road.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.

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