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Summer turning up the heat – and the wildfire risk

Galen Grooms, a Spokane Fire Department firefighter with Station No. 7, mops up hot spots on a small brush fire along the 1700 block of East Hartson Avenue on Friday. With temperatures rising, the threat of wildfires is growing in the region. (Colin Mulvany)
Galen Grooms, a Spokane Fire Department firefighter with Station No. 7, mops up hot spots on a small brush fire along the 1700 block of East Hartson Avenue on Friday. With temperatures rising, the threat of wildfires is growing in the region. (Colin Mulvany)

Slow season expected, thanks to wet spring

The Inland Northwest is heading into its hottest week since August 2009, pushing the area’s fire danger up a notch.

But wildfire experts aren’t too worried yet.

“We are anticipating a start to fire season much later than normal” for Eastern Washington and North Idaho, said John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. For the region, it’s expected to “basically be a slow season,” Saltenberger said Friday.

The cool, wet spring has helped keep fire risk low.

“We’ve had a lot of moisture,” said Steve Harris, spokesman for Washington’s Department of Natural Resources. “We had snow in the upper elevations until just a couple weeks ago.”

But conditions can change rapidly, experts say. Temperatures are expected to soar to nearly 100 degrees Sunday through Tuesday, then remain in the 90s through Friday.

Additionally, the National Weather Service’s long-term forecast is predicting hotter- and drier-than-normal weather for July, August and September.

Just one week of hot, dry weather can bump the danger level up to high, Harris said.

“And remember, firestorm was in October,” said Jon Fox, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Spokane.

That’s the name given to the 1991 cluster of blazes near Spokane that destroyed more than 100 homes and left one person dead.

“What led up to that was two months of dry weather followed by a storm,” Fox said. “All it takes is one good thunderstorm.”

The fire danger level rose from low to moderate today in Spokane, Okanogan, Lincoln and south Stevens counties, Harris said. “Our wetter counties are staying low for a little longer: Pend Oreille, north Stevens and Ferry.”

The slow start to wildfire season is a prime opportunity for landowners to prepare. First, observe the statewide burn ban that went into effect July 1, Harris said.

“Make sure things are cleaned up around the property, such as needles and brush,” he added. “For people with burn piles who burned this winter or spring, make sure those are out. Those can smolder for months.”

Landowners are advised to clear at least 30 feet between buildings and trees or bushes, Harris said. On the downhill side of a home, the buffer should be 100 feet. In windy areas, such as the West Plains, clear an even wider area on the southwest side of structures.

“In Colorado,” Harris added, “they are saying the homes with defensible space are the ones that survived.”



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