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

As nearby fires reach containment, Inslee points to climate change

Washington Governor Jay Inslee speaks during a news conference on Thursday in Malden, Wash.  (Geoff Crimmins)
By Jim Camden and Maggie Quinlan The Spokesman-Review

As fires in Eastern Washington slowed down Tuesday, tens of thousands of acres continued to burn in the state, a fact Gov. Jay Inslee attributes to climate change.

The Babb-Malden fire, which destroyed most of the 200-person town of Malden in Whitman County, was about 90% contained and had burned around 15,000 acres as of Tuesday night.

The Whitney fire in Lincoln County, at around 127,000 acres, is about 85% contained, though firefighters Monday said with smoke so thick, aircraft were forced to stay on the ground.

Fire fighters working to extinguish the roughly 19,000-acre Ichelium Complex fire about 100 miles northeast of Spokane reached 53% containment Tuesday.

In a news conference Tuesday, Inslee was joined by Crystal Raymond, a climate adaptation specialist and fire ecologist from the University of Washington.

The governor continued his criticism of President Donald Trump for comments made during a presidential visit to California on Monday, during which Trump dismissed a connection of climate change and the fires and attributed it to the need for better forest management.

“He just gave deception and smirked in the faces of those who have had terrible losses and those who have been working so hard to reduce these risks,” Inslee said.

The state does have a forest management plan, but those are short-term measures while addressing climate change is a long-term measure, he said.

Forest management wouldn’t make a difference for some of the current fires like the one that destroyed most of Malden and Pine City, Inslee said, because they are primarily wildland fires that burned grass and sagebrush.

Raymond said the connection between climate change and increased wildfires has been “clearly established” over the past decade. It involves wetter winters and springs plus hotter, drier summers.

“As bad as it is now … it will continue to worsen,” she said.

That will involve more extreme fire days, longer fire seasons and more acres burned, she said.

While the late 1800s and early 1900s had some similar large wildfires, climate change is making conditions worse, with more concern in Western Washington and Western Oregon, she added.

Recent fires have burned more than 620,000 acres, and the total for the year is about 807,000 acres, Inslee said. The fires have burned more than 400 structures, about half of which are homes.