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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Summer heat brings out wildfire danger

All that spring rain bought the region some time, but the long-expected drought has finally hit.

Wildland firefighters are on edge with the forecast calling for continued heat and wind, combined with the prospect of hundreds of campfires this weekend in Inland Northwest forests. On Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Lands increased the wildfire danger rating to high and the National Weather Service issued a “red flag” wildfire warning for southeast Washington.

The Washington warning will remain in effect through this evening and was issued because conditions are ripe for “explosive fire growth,” according to a Weather Service statement.

Also Wednesday, the Washington Department of Ecology announced that 136 water users in the Little Spokane River drainage will have to stop watering their lawns and gardens to keep the river from running too low. This is the fifth consecutive year of such restrictions, and they might have come as early as May if not for plentiful rain in spring and early summer, said John Covert, Ecology Department hydrogeologist. That rain was especially welcome because it followed a winter of pitiful mountain snow.

“The (spring) weather certainly helped ease some of the ramifications of the drought,” said Charles Ross, a Spokane hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

But that’s little comfort now. In fact, the rain increased the growth of grass and weeds that are now drying, and might fuel fires, said Sandie Durand, fire prevention technician with the Idaho Department of Lands.

“Things are not good out there. People need to be really responsible,” Durand said.

Burning permits are required for all fires in North Idaho, except campfires, Durand said. Burning machine-piled logging slash is no longer permitted.

Burning has already been banned in Eastern Washington, including Spokane County. Campfires are permitted in designated campsites.

“This weekend will be a little bit of a concern for us,” said Dave Brown, a fuels forester with the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. “There’ll be a lot of people out in the woods trying to beat the heat.”

Firefighters hope for a dash of rain at least once every two weeks during July and August, said Pat Humphries, with Spokane County Fire District 4. But the last significant rain was more than two hot weeks ago.

“We’ve had somewhat of a slow start so far, but we’re just starting out,” Humphries said.

Many fire crews normally stationed in the area are now fighting fires in Montana, Utah and Alaska.

The spring rains were a lucky break for farmers. But the drought is taking its toll on water systems like the Little Spokane River, Covert said.

“I’ve seen a few wells that didn’t start off as well as they did at the beginning of last summer,” Covert said. “Next year we might see some of those wells even lower.”

Rivers can be indicators of what’s happening beneath the surface, said Keith Phillips, chairman of the state’s Executive Water Emergency Committee.

“A lot of drinking water supplies don’t respond instantly” to wetter weather, he said. “When ground water is stressed, it takes longer to recover. Some aquifers take months and years to come back to normal.”

Officials started growing concerned about this year’s low snowpack in December, said Doug McChesney, the Department of Ecology’s drought coordinator.

With February seeing almost no precipitation, snow levels didn’t come close to average and the peak stream flows for many areas came almost two months before they were due.

On March 10, the Department of Ecology declared a statewide drought emergency, garnering $8 million in emergency money from the Legislature, and began fast-tracking applications for emergency wells and water relief.

So far the department has spent $5 million, with most going to water needs for farmers in central Washington. The rest could be used as new problems arise this summer, McChesney said.