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

Fire officials prepare for long season

With temperatures reaching into the high 80s, from top, Jamie Tabino, Lincoln Tabino, Spencer Tabino, Emma Randolph and Mary Randolph float through Pine River Park in north Spokane County on Tuesday. 
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The biggest displays of smoke and fire could be sparked after tonight’s pyrotechnics.

Firefighting experts say the Inland Northwest is on the verge of what’s shaping up to be a fierce wildfire season.

Although record heat is expected Thursday, forests and fields across the region are already baked dry. Even some of the largest logs in the forest are registering internal moisture levels not typically seen until the hottest days of August, according to recent measurements taken by U.S. Forest Service officials.

“If we have a fireworks-related event, it’s just going to go very, very fast,” said Pat Humphries, spokesman for Spokane County Fire District 4, which includes Deer Park and much of northern Spokane County.

A high of 101 is forecast for Thursday for Coeur d’Alene and Spokane, according to the National Weather Service. The previous record of 100 degrees was set in 1975. Friday is expected to be a degree or two cooler, but that’s also the day a line of dry thunderstorms is expected to rumble through the area, potentially raking the region with lightning.

Thursday is expected to be the hottest day of the heat wave. Temps will remain in the upper 80s through the weekend.

Regional firefighting officials began growing nervous in April, when snowpacks across the Inland Northwest melted about a month earlier than usual. Mountain snows that linger into summer help keep water in streams and forest soils moist. Most peaks across the region have been bare for weeks.

“We’re headed toward a long, hard fire season, the way it looks. The public needs to be prepared for it,” said Steve Rawlings, fire management officer for the Colville National Forest. “We’ve slid into fire season without people making a big issue about it.”

Fuel moisture levels in the largest fuels – the “1,000-hour fuels” – are as low as 10 percent in portions of northeast Washington. Near Priest Lake in Idaho they were at about 16 percent Tuesday, which is “extremely dry,” said Gail West, spokeswoman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

“We’re hurting for certain,” she said.

During the past decade, an average of 1.8 million acres burns each year nationwide. This year, even before the full brunt of summer’s heat settles in on the Northern Rockies and Alaska, 1.9 million acres has already burned, according to records kept by the National Incident Information Center.

The fire season doesn’t typically heat up in the Inland Northwest until August and September.

But large blazes are already beginning to pop up, including a 155-acre wildfire that started Monday in Stevens County, Wash., and a 2,500-acre fire near Grangeville, Idaho.

The early fires “give some indication of where we are this year,” said Bob Burke, a fire program manager with the Idaho Department of Lands. “The snow’s gone early. Things are drier than what we usually expect.”

Although fires are starting to burn across the West, fire managers say the region remains in good shape for firefighters and aircraft. Additional aircraft are scheduled to arrive in Coeur d’Alene on Friday.

“We still have a lot of resources here to take care of our own homefront,” said Julia Genre, assistant manager of the Coeur d’Alene Interagency Dispatch Center.