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

Fire season could be bad in Yakima Valley

People at a viewpoint overlooking the Columbia River watch the Eagle Creek wildfire burning Sept. 4, 2017, in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, Ore., in this photo provided by Inciweb. (Uncredited / AP)
By Alec Regimbal Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA — Wildland firefighters expect the Pacific Northwest to see another busy fire season this year with land around Yakima especially vulnerable.

“If I were to pick one place that might experience above-average fire danger, it’s the Yakima Valley and the eastern slopes” of the Cascade Mountains, said Josh Clark, a meteorologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Less rain in the winter, above-average temperatures and less mountain snow mean fires could start earlier and burn longer than a typical season, Clark said.

Clark spoke at a conference of wildland firefighters from Alaska, Washington and Oregon held at the Yakima Convention Center.

Washington has seen a dramatic increase in wildfires over the past 10 years because of climate change, said Chuck Turley, a wildfire division manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.

“We don’t think of them as fire seasons anymore, we think of them as fire years, because they start earlier and go later,” Turley said.

Last year, 3,404 wildfires burned more than 1.2 million acres of forest in the Pacific Northwest. In Central Washington, two large blazes – the Jolly Mountain and Norse Peak fires – blackened roughly 92,000 acres of forest in Kittitas County.

Clark said the weather forecast for this year’s season is akin to last year, but emphasized that could change at any time.

“It’s hard to predict with certainty,” Turley said. “At this time last year, most of us felt it was going to be a slow or below average fire season, but once it started it got active fast and it went on for a long time.”

Turley said DNR is preparing for another bad fire season by keeping resources ready in places where fires are predicted; holding regular training sessions between different firefighting agencies to improve coordination on big fires; and continuing to train National Guard troops in firefighting protocols.

When trying to contain large fires threatening homes or other property, states can request federal funds to pay for additional firefighting personnel, such as the National Guard. Last year, troops were deployed to the Cle Elum area after Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in response to the Jolly Mountain Fire, which threatened hundreds of cabins and homes west of Roslyn. Turley said his department has trained about 1,000 National Guard troops to assist with firefighting efforts.

Tuesday marked the second of a four-day conference about the wildfire season. A featured speaker Tuesday was the state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.

“Obviously, every fire season causes anxiety,” she said. “We’re lucky to not have had incidents like the ones in Oregon and California, but it’s important to know that it’s possible for us to have those same kinds of incidents.”

Last year, wildfires in California and Oregon collectively blackened more than 300,000 acres, and forced the evacuations of more than 200,000 people.

Franz said Washington spent $130 million on battling wildfires last year. This year, she said, the Legislature allocated roughly $16 million for improving forest health and fighting wildfires.

The department will likely need to request more money from the Legislature as the season progresses, said Carrie McCausland, a DNR spokeswoman.

Franz said an integral part of the state’s long-term plan for preventing wildfires is improving forest health by thinning trees killed by insects or disease or damaged by natural disasters. In addition to burning faster and helping spread wildfires, dead trees threaten firefighters because they’re more likely to fall.

Of the state’s approximately 22 million acres of forest, roughly 512,000 acres are dead and a total of 2.7 million acres need to be treated to reduce the fire danger, said Chuck Hersey, a DNR forest health program manager. About 80 percent of the dead trees are on the east side of the state, Hersey said.