OLYMPIA – Early spring was cool and wet in Washington, but May was among the hottest and driest on record, which has state officials bracing for a worse-than-normal wildfire season.
State residents probably won’t see the record destruction of 2014 and 2015, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said Tuesday. But it’s already bad enough that different agencies have fought 315 fires around the state.
Those include significant fires in Eastern and Central Washington and wildfires in April in Western Washington, which is months earlier than normal, Franz said. The state already has deployed aircraft and other equipment so personnel will be able to get to fires soon after they start.
“It’s going to be a pretty challenging fire season,” Franz said.
The weather forecast for Eastern Washington calls for above-normal temperatures this summer and below-normal precipitation, said Robin Fox, of the National Weather Service office in Spokane. That’s similar to last year and 2012, but not as bad as 2014 and 2015, she said.
One factor that made those two years so terrible, however, was lightning that struck in remote areas, starting fires that were hard to access and fight.
Lightning is hard to predict beyond two to four weeks, Fox said. Winds, which make wildfires grow rapidly, are also hard to predict far into the future.
Franz and Gov. Jay Inslee took part in their annual exercise to highlight fire season, which includes opening and properly getting under a portable fire shelter in 30 seconds. It’s required for anyone entering an area where fire suppression activities are underway.
As they were speaking, the state was mobilizing resources to help fight a wildfire near Soap Lake that started Monday.
Federal, state and local agencies have been training together so they’ll know how to collaborate on fires that affect lands with a wide range of owners. About three-quarters of all fires are caused by humans, and the department is working with landowners to reduce risks.
The Firewise program, which shows how to reduce the combustible material around homes, can produce dramatic results, Inslee said. He was recently in Eastern and Central Washington, where he visited areas that had homes that cleared those materials survived recent fires intact, while a neighbor’s home was burned to the ground.
Such precautions become more important as a changing climate produces more years with drier forests and rangelands, he said.
“This is not just one bad fire season,” Inslee said. “This is a rolling catastrophe that’s going to destroy our forests.”