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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Despite prediction of average wildfire season, officials urge residents to prepare and prevent

A plane drops a load of fire retardant on the north side of Beacon Hill in this photo from 2016. Summer weather forecasts suggest this summer should deliver an average wildfire season. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Emma Epperly The Spokesman-Review

Eastern Washington and North Idaho are set up for what officials are calling an average wildfire season this year.

Exactly how bad the fire season is this year depends on how many get started in the first place, said Laurie Nisbet, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Spokane.

“There’s two things that start wildfires – it’s going to be lightning or people. So if we have citizens making good choices and wise choices, then we might not have as many wildfire starts,” Nisbet said.

On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee expanded the drought emergency he declared in April to cover almost half the state, including the Colville and Kettle Falls areas.

Long-range forecasts predict temperatures from June to September will be above normal – just as they were in April.

This winter delivered below-normal snowfall, however Nisbet said snowpack does not have a large impact on summer wildfires. The majority of Washington is forecast to have below normal precipitation levels over the next month but indicators for the whole summer are not strong either way, Nisbet said.

About 438,834 acres burned across Washington last year.That’s more than in 2017 or 2016.

Among the most notable fires last year was the Upriver Beacon Fire, which burned 115 acres in Spokane and forced the evacuation of about 800 homes.

Last year, the Department of Natural Resources spent approximately $88.2 million on wildfire suppression.

Those numbers were dwarfed by the record-breaking wildfire season of 2015.

More than 1.1 million acres burned that year, and a new 20-year forest health plan was developed by the DNR. The DNR plans to use new funds designated by the Legislature this year to work on forest health and wildfire suppression, along with funding existing cost-share programs that help property owners perform forest health and fire prevention work on their property.

Lisa Woodard, communications and outreach manager at the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, emphasized that people with sensitive health issues should already have a plan in place with their doctor before wildfire season, especially with 13 days of health-based air quality standards being exceeded due to wildfire smoke just last year.

Air quality in the summer is affected by wildfire smoke, said Woodard, who also noted, “a lot of work is going on behind the scenes to gear up and be more prepared as this becomes more of a norm.”

Though there is little residents can do about the weather, property owners can play an important part in wildfire prevention efforts.

Firewise USA sites are created by communities that prioritize and organize events related to fire prevention. One of the first sites in the nation is located at River Bluff Ranch, north of Spokane.

The group that started in 2002 is now run by a committee, which has been chaired by former Spokane Valley fire Chief Mike Thompson since 2004.

Thompson, “anticipates that it’s going to be another busy year for firefighters,” and said the Firewise program informs homeowners how to prepare for what “looks like it’s going to be a hot, dry summer for everyone.”

Thompson said the program is “kind of homegrown rather than developed by the professionals” and is an important part of protecting and educating homeowners from wildfires.

Charlie Bennett is the director of the Reflection Lake Community Association Firewise group and is hoping for the group to gain official recognition later this year. Bennett learned about Firewise communities last year when he asked the Spokane Conservation District to come to his property and do a fire assessment.

There has been 30 years of forgetfulness when people didn’t clean up their property, said Bennett. “Defensible space is really what it’s all about.”