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Wet winter yields to fire season fears

Usually damp areas drying too quickly for experts’ comfort

SEATTLE – Moss in parts of the Hoh Rain Forest, usually damp and springy, now crackles underfoot.

Boggy areas near the coast that typically hold 3 to 4 inches of water are kicking up dust.

And the thicker trees in the northern Cascades, the ones that fuel and sustain big, hot fires, are drying out more every afternoon.

Remnants of the state’s reasonably wet winter are evaporating as the region transitions to a potentially combustible summer.

Even in damp Western Washington, a long rainless stretch in June the last serious rainfall came May 19 has helped set up wildfire conditions not normally seen until summer’s end.

“About once every 10 years we get into a fairly good summer for wildfire potential,” said Larry Nickey, the fire-management officer for Olympic National Park. “Right now, it looks like it could be that once-in-10-years summer.”

Already King County has seen twice as many brush fires as in any of the previous three years. And as parts of the Northwest saw 10 or 20 times more mountain snow than normal this year, other areas saw less and are drying out lightning fast.

In the southern Puget Sound region, trees 3 to 9 inches in diameter hold less moisture than they have in a decade, said Chuck Frame, a fire-operations manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

“In mid-April, I was thinking, ‘Is it ever going to quit raining?’ ” he recalled. “Now I’m thinking, ‘Boy I wish it would rain.’ ”

And from the Olympic Peninsula, which rarely sees large fires, to Okanogan County, which sees one almost every year, northern areas are several times drier than those to the south. While parts of eastern Oregon’s high sage desert had five times more rainfall in the last month than normal, the winter snows that green up the Methow Valley were barely half what they are in a normal year. Olympic National Park is drier still.

Prange and other experts compared current conditions to those of the summer of 1994. That year, the Tyee fire outside Wenatchee scorched 135,000 acres, gutted three dozen homes and cabins and emptied out the towns of Leavenworth and Chelan. And that was just one of several large fires in the region.

Still, some of the factors that have kept Northwest wild lands from exploding may yet keep things in control. Temperatures have not reached searing heights, humidity levels have not dropped off dramatically, and the region has so far been spared the chinook winds from the east that turn forest underbrush into popcorn.

“Those winds can make things even drier, and they can come on at any time,” said John Heckman, a fire expert with the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

For much of the region, a few good summer rains still could make a big difference.

“If we were to get back to a normal rain cycle here pretty quick, that could bring us back to normal,” said Nickey, on the Olympic Peninsula.


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