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Conditions ripe for wildfires

SUNDAY, JUNE 28, 2009

Dry weather has officials braced for busy season

OLYMPIA – With the hottest, driest months yet to come, many parts of the state already are primed for the busiest fire season in years, state officials say.

“I’d say that 2003 was probably the last time that we saw a real dry start to the fire season like we’re looking at now,” said Greg Sinnett, chief meteorologist for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources. “If you’ve been lucky enough to get a thunderstorm here and there, you’ve been lucky.”

Among the lucky – although it may not have felt that way at the time – were Spokane and parts of the northeastern corner of the state, which did get significant precipitation.

But in many parts of the state, a cool, wet spring was followed by severe drying and a long stretch without significant rain, Sinnett said.

“We ran about 29 days in a row without any measurable precipitation at several stations,” he said.

The summer will also bring El Niño conditions, in which sea surface temperatures are higher than normal. For the Pacific Northwest, he said, that tends to mean a dry, hotter summer. And that means hotter, harder-to-stop fires.

Fire officials are particularly worried about conditions in north-central Washington, including the Okanogan region and upper Columbia basin. They’re already dry, Sinnett said, and the prospects for significant rain this summer “are pretty remote.”

“They started having drought conditions in April or May,” said deputy state fire marshal Esther Hernandez. “We’re expecting that there’s going to be a lot of (fire) activity up there, although obviously we’re hoping not.” She said fire experts are also predicting an unusually long fire season, probably into October.

Worsening matters, Sinnett said, early rain followed by a long string of sunny days caused a lot of growth in grasses and other vegetation.

“Now everything’s kind of drying up and curing to burn,” he said.

Hernandez said that homeowners in rural areas should be mindful of two key areas around the home. A “home ignition zone” 30 feet around a house should be kept very green, she said. Homeowners should also try to create a “defensible space” from there to 200 feet around the home, she said. That means spacing trees apart from each other, thinning brush, and creating fire breaks, such as gravel walkways or lawns. Homeowners also should ensure that driveways are accessible for tall firetrucks, she said.

Other steps include clearing debris from under decks, cleaning pine needles off roofs and out of gutters, and storing firewood away from the home.

Sinnett said the state could get lucky. That’s what happened in 2005. It was an unusually dry fire season, but there were fewer human- and lightning-caused fires than officials had feared.

“It’s one of those things we kind of sweat out each year,” he said.

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