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Weathercatch: Wet spring produces bountiful fuel source for wildfires

The Snake River wildfire started by lightning early Saturday morning was 20 percent contained as of Monday. (Washington Department of Natural Resources / Courtesy photo)
The Snake River wildfire started by lightning early Saturday morning was 20 percent contained as of Monday. (Washington Department of Natural Resources / Courtesy photo)

Remember all the rain that fell in March and April? One would think a heavy drench would quell this summer’s wildfire danger.

Not so. Instead, spring’s precipitation ramped up the risk by producing a bumper crop of grass, sage and other shrubs east of the Cascade Range.

On top of that, many areas in the Inland Northwest haven’t seen measurable rainfall since June 15. What’s more, July’s overall temperature is running 6.2 degrees above normal.

At more than a month without rain – combined with occasional searing heat, gusty winds and low humidity – we’ve got dense, combustible vegetation blanketing fields, hills and mountainsides.

“There’s a lot of fuel out there, and it’s ready to burn,” Lonnie Click, incident manager for a wildfire near Yakima, told the Seattle Times on June 28. Grasses were as high as 4 feet, he said.

Last weekend another weather-related factor whipped up the hazard: lightning.

The scattered lightning that moved across much of Eastern Washington ignited dry grassland east of Pomeroy early Saturday morning. Called the Snake River Fire, winds quickly spread flames downhill, creating the largest blaze that’s currently being fought in Washington state.

The Department of Natural Resources is urging people to be cautious when recreating outdoors.

Even though vegetation typically dries out during summer, this year’s shift between wet and dry has been more dramatic than usual.

As for the second half of summer? Firefighters will probably be busy. Weather conditions are expected to be warmer and drier than normal, with periodic breeziness.

Nic Loyd is a meteorologist with Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet. Linda Weiford is a WSU news writer and weather geek. Contact: linda.weiford@wsu.edu or nicholas.loyd@wsu.edu.


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