The Inland Northwest could be in for a highly active fire season this summer, despite several weeks of relatively cool, wet weather, regional fire and weather experts say.
After a somewhat dry winter and early spring in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, weather patterns have turned wetter in recent weeks, with parts of northeastern Washington receiving 8 inches of rain within the last month.
But even with a healthy snowpack at higher elevations and plenty of recent rainfall, the fire season is really dictated by what happens this summer, according to Steve Bodnar, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Spokane office.
“It doesn’t take very much at all in our region to transition to very, very dry summer,” Bodnar said.
Over the last several years, Bodnar’s office has conducted studies on how snowpack levels affect the summer fire season. Most years, a high snowpack “barely mattered at all” when summer rolled around, Bodnar said. Regardless of moisture levels, all it takes for a highly active fire season is a few weeks of especially hot, dry weather.
That’s not to say the past weeks of cool, wet weather won’t have any impact on fires this summer. Recent precipitation will likely mean a healthy grass crop across the region this summer, Bodnar said. And all that green grass is bound to turn dry, brown and flammable by mid-August, typically the peak of fire season.
Spokane and the surrounding areas can expect an active fire season beginning right around the Fourth of July, Bodnar said. His office is predicting conditions will be warmer and drier than average throughout the fire season, traditionally spanning from July to September.
That’s in line with what Bodnar called the “new normal” of highly active fire seasons in the region – besides 2019, Eastern Washington has seen eight straight highly active fire seasons, burning an average of 156,000 acres each year. That average excludes the extreme 2015 season, which burned one million acres across Washington.
There is one key wildfire factor Bodnar can’t predict, though – ignition. Many wildfires in this region start when lightning strikes after those weeks of hot, dry weather. But the likelihood of lightning is pretty difficult to pin down this far out, Bodnar said, and it’s not always guaranteed. Last year’s fire season was less active compared to recent years, despite the right conditions, partially because most lightning that summer was accompanied by rain storms.
But the majority of wildfires are not Mother Nature’s doing, according to Washington’s state forester George Geissler.
Half of northeast Washington’s 192 wildfires in 2020 thus far were out-of-control debris burns, according to state Department of Natural Resources data. Another 10% were caused by arson, children playing or recreation. Only five were caused by lightning strikes.
“You should expect to see a lot of that Smokey Bear messaging this summer, because it’s especially crucial this year,” Geissler said.
Much of Washington east of the Cascades has been experiencing moderate to severe drought for several years now, Geissler said. Recent rainfall hasn’t covered the deficit, and the drought is projected to continue for the foreseeable future. Right now, Geissler expects any wildfires that pop up will be easily contained because of the recent moisture, but it won’t stick around long once the fire season really kicks off in July.
Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said his department has come to expect busy seasons. Like most fire departments, Schaeffer’s crews spend their seasonal downtime making sure equipment is fully operational and training is fully updated for the summer fire season.
“But there’s always the COVID complication,” Schaeffer said.
Fire departments will need to ensure wildfire outbreaks don’t become “project fires” in order to avoid coronavirus transmission between departments, Schaeffer said. When fires become too large to contain quickly, crews from surrounding areas are often deployed to help the local department, with all the firefighters housed together in base camps with little room for social distancing.
The best way to avoid complication is to keep fires from reaching project levels in the first place, Schaeffer said. He expects fire crews to be doing a lot more “preparation and anticipation” this year, pinpointing where fires are likely in the hopes of getting them under control before they spread. Aircraft also will probably be used more frequently to get fires contained more quickly than ground crews could do.
Geissler has spent a lot of time since the beginning of the pandemic thinking about how to handle operations if things do get out of control, though.
“As a former fire incident commander, I know that anytime you step away from what’s tried and true there’s always concern, and hope is never a strategy,” Geissler said.
If project fires do start this summer, Geissler said traditional base camps will look quite different, with enhanced sanitation measures and additional spacing in sleeping, eating and working spaces. Smaller crews are also possible, with several crews scattered strategically around a wildfire operation instead of one big camp. Those measures would help protect both firefighters and the communities they pass through, but Geissler said the “trade-off” would be less efficient communication between scattered crews.
Ultimately, Geissler said, fire crews will rely even more so than usual on the cooperation of local residents. He said the public should pay attention to that Smokey Bear messaging and educate themselves on risk factors for human-caused wildfires. It’s not always the obvious mistakes like leaving campfires unextinguished, Geissler said – simply mowing your lawn on a particularly dry day near a fuel source can spark a fire.
Spokane, like many cities across the West, has plenty of areas where wildlands and residential areas intermingle, known as wildland-urban interfaces. According to Matthew Carroll, a professor studying human response to fire at Washington State University, Spokane and its outlying communities are “no better, no worse” prepared for encroaching fires than the rest of the region. But, he said, there’s a lot of work to be done.
Fire has been part of ponderosa pine ecosystems, like the ones surrounding Spokane, for millennia, Carroll said. Humans got pretty good at completely suppressing fires within the last century, but that’s caused a problem in itself. Fuels have built up over decades without fires consuming them, so when fires inevitably can’t be suppressed, the fallout is devastating.
“We can’t put them all out,” Carroll said. “We need to adapt to living with fire rather than fighting against it.”
That means making sure WUIs are managed to reduce the risk of wildfires jumping to human developments. Such management strategies look different in each town, Carroll said, and typically require a concerted effort from institutions like city governments and the U.S. Forest Service as well as residents of those areas.
Carroll said he doesn’t know of any city doing nearly enough fuel reduction near residential zones, and Spokane is no exception. He sees a lot of trees and bushes very close to homes and fire-prone shake-style roofing all throughout the city. The Spokesman-Review reported in 2016 that nearly 18,000 homes in the Spokane area were highly vulnerable to wildfire, and Carroll thought not much has changed since then.
For those living in WUIs, Carroll said a lot of those precautions can be done yourself, including clearing a 30-foot radius of “defensible space” free of vegetation and debris around your home and replacing ornamental conifer trees with less-flammable ground-cover plants. The Spokane Conservation District runs a Firewise program that offers free fire risk assessments to Spokane County residents.
“These changes might be a gargantuan, yearslong project overall,” Carroll said. “But cities will be safer and save more money in the long run if we change our mindsets about fire now.”
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