Campfires and cigarettes. Sparking machinery and fireworks. Slash piles and debris burns that grow out of control.
And, yes, even gender-reveal parties gone wrong.
Our sudden, explosive wildfire season is just one more way that we manage to prove Pogo’s credo correct: We have met the enemy and he is us. The fires that increasingly plague the West – growing bigger and more destructive as the climate warms, droughts increase and the forests dry – are almost always started by something one of us did.
As we live through another smoky season of destruction and death, another season of extraordinary cost to homes and families and state government, we should make time to consider how to do it less.
That would require more time and energy and thoughtfulness when the fires aren’t burning. It would require listening to the fire suppression officials when the skies aren’t orange. There’s no question: If we can attack human carelessness, improve vigilance and compliance, and instill protective practices on the front end, we can start fewer fires.
“We really need the people of Washington to help us out,” said Janet Pearce, the communications manager for wildfire for the state Department of Natural Resources.
We’re still in the smoky midst of wildfires that have been mostly set by humans in Washington and all around the West. One California fire was indeed caused by a pyrotechnic device at a gender-reveal party, officials said this week; it was a tragicomic case, perfectly made for social media. But most of the time, the causes are more routine and predictable: waste fires and camp fires escaping their bounds.
Our current burst of wildfires came in a rush on Labor Day, Pearce said.
“We had 58 fire-starts in one day, and we had no lightning and no volcanic explosions,” Pearce said, “which means they were human-caused.”
A mere two days later, more than 500,000 acres had burned statewide, four times last year’s total. More like a bomb than like a fire.
Most of those were related to outdoor recreation – campfire embers catching the wind, mostly, but other activities can also lead to fires, such as riding four-wheelers without the right spark arresters, she said. Overall, though, the most common cause of wildfires in Washington is people burning debris on their property and failing to keep it controlled.
There’s now a ban on such burning, but that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared.
So far this season, DNR has reported 853 fires. Of those, 232 are either of undetermined origin or under investigation. More than a third of the remaining 621 fires – 222 – were caused by debris burning.
Recreation-related causes, such as campfires, account for 107 fires so far this year.
Just 29 were caused by lightning – the same as arson. Smokers caused 10.
Federal statistics show that between 2000 and 2017, nearly 90% of wildfires were human-caused – from negligence, the use of machinery or equipment, campfires or smokers, or arson. Human causes include starts that are not negligent or purposeful. When a tree falls on a power line and that sparks a fire, it’s considered human-caused. If a piece of farm machinery sends a spark to the right fuel, it’s human-caused.
Wildfires have been intensifying for years, and this is shaping up to be a record year of destruction around the West. With climate change and fuel buildup in the forest, conditions aren’t improving. And beyond the human cost – Malden, Washington, destroyed, a 1-year-old killed, entire neighborhoods burned to the ground – is an extraordinary financial cost.
In the past decade, the annual national cost of fighting wildfires for just the federal government has been $1.8 billion. As the fires and acreages grow, that expense has grown – the average for the past five years is $2.3 billion.
The sudden burst of wildfires this week pushed state firefighting resources past their limit. We spend an average of $153 million a year on firefighting in Washington, and officials say they need more.
They also need more from the people of Washington. More caution. More care. More responsibility.
“Our summer’s not anywhere near over,” Pearce said.
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