A cooler than average spring could delay the 2022 wildfire season, giving residents more time to make their homes fire resistant.
Washington faced the second-worst wildfire season in its history in 2021 with over 600,000 acres burned in 1,875 fires, said Hilary Franz, the state public lands commissioner.
“It’s an anomaly to have a light fire season whereas it used to be the bad fire season was the anomaly,” Franz said earlier this month. “Last year was an example of how challenging it’s getting, where we had the worst drought in Washington state’s history. We battled 220 fires in April alone and our season just got more difficult and more challenging as the months went on.”
With a cool spring, more resources and a push to get residents to make their homes more wildfire resistant, Franz hopes the 2022 wildfire season will be less severe.
Watching the weather
Meteorologists and scientists look at a variety of factors when predicting wildfire conditions, including temperature, precipitation, drought status and forest health.
“What we have noticed this spring overall is much cooler than average temperatures,” said Steven Van Horn, meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Spokane office.
Normally, the temperature hits 70 degrees or higher in May numerous times in Spokane. This year, it didn’t hit 70 degrees until May 26, the latest that’s happened in the 126 years weather service records have been kept.
Colder weather has kept the region’s snowpack intact, ranging from 130 to 150% above normal levels, Van Horn said.
“For at least those higher elevations, it definitely is trending toward the fire season starting later than what we typically see,” Van Horn said.
Western Washington experienced increased precipitation in May at 130 to 150% above normal. Central Washington saw far less rain, with precipitation between 70 to 90% less than normal. Precipitation in Eastern Washington has been sporadic due to the convective nature of weather systems in the area, leaving pockets with above-normal precipitation while other areas are below normal.
The lack of rain, “really isn’t helping our drought,” Van Horn said.
Last year, Spokane was under ”exceptional drought” for the first time. The continuing drought was in part responsible for a recent ordinance adopted by Spokane City Council to limit when and how much residents can water their lawns.
Wildfires already are down this spring compared to last year, Franz said.
In 2021, the Department of Natural Resources battled 220 fires in April. This April, there were only 46 wildland fires, Franz said.
Moving into the summer, temperatures are expected to be close to average, Van Horn said.
For Spokane, that means highs in the low 70s for June followed by highs in the low to mid-80s for July and August, he said.
Even with a cool spring, the biggest determination of the severity of wildfire season are temperatures and precipitation during the summer months, Van Horn said.
“Once we get into the summer, that’s the biggest thing. If it’s hot and dry, then that will cure out the fuels and make them more susceptible to fire,” Van Horn said. “That’s why the summer season really plays the biggest role.”
Wildfire season typically begins around the Fourth of July and could be a bit delayed this year to the middle of July, Van Horn predicted.
“All hands, all lands”
With a significant number of wildfires threatening homes and lives each year, local, state and national organizations are making a big push to raise awareness of simple ways residents can make their home more fire resistant.
“We know that wildfire doesn’t follow property lines,” Franz said. “When it comes to preparing for wildfire, everyone must take action for the community to be resilient against wildfire.”
Earlier this month, the Department of Natural Resources and Franz launched the ”Wildfire Ready Neighbors” program in Spokane County that aims to help residents make their homes more fire resistant.
Residents can sign up online to have a free home assessment from their local fire agency. They’ll walk the property and point out fire hazards like flammable materials near the home, impinging trees and flammable building materials.
In Spokane County Fire District 5, there are funds available to help with some of the recommended changes, thanks to Fire Commissioner Bonnie Cobb, who applied for and received a $300,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant. District 5 in a rural district in northwestern Spokane County.
“The more we can educate, the safer it is for everybody,” Cobb said.
Clearing 100 feet around a residence, swapping out wood for fire-resistant decking materials or adding mesh screening below the deck can be expensive, but the grant can help offset that cost, Cobb said.
Despite the available funds, Cobb said it can be difficult to persuade people who moved to a rural area with a desire to be surrounded by nature to tamper with the natural landscape. Cobb emphasizes they’re not asking residents to clear-cut forested lands, just create 100 feet of defensible space around their homes and to take fire into consideration when making updates, like getting a new roof.
Cobb hopes to have 30 homes in the district this year complete the program.
Knowing neighborhoods on the wildland urban interface are fire resistant is a huge relief for local fire districts, said Jared Harms, deputy chief at Spokane County Fire District 4, which covers 330 square miles of northern Spokane County.
“We have too many communities that are on the front lines of these fires every single year,” Franz said.
Last year, the Hazard Hill Fire consumed 125 acres within hours and was close to numerous homes and neighborhoods, Harms said.
One community, River Bluff Ranch, helped relieve Harms’ stress as he worked to control the blaze.
River Bluff Ranch is the oldest Firewise community in Washington. Firewise is a designation given to neighborhoods that take steps to reduce wildfire risks as outlined by the National Fire Protection Association.
Developer Chris Heftel decided fire safety and forest health should be a priority from the start when planning the neighborhood. River Bluff Ranch received the Firewise designation in 2002 as one of the first 10 sites in the United States.
Homeowners in the community are required to use fire-resistant roofing and decking materials, to maintain defensible space around their homes and keep their forested land healthy, Heftel said.
“Just like you’re in an area that’s prone to flooding or if you’re in an area that’s prone to hurricanes or tornadoes, you should try and plan accordingly,” Heftel said. “And that’s what we did here with fire.”
During the Hazard Hill Fire, Harms said knowing Riverbluff Ranch was fire resistant was a “great relief.”
“We know that these homes up here are defensible. It takes very little time to come up here and triage these homes,” Harms said. “It allowed us to dedicate more resources to all the other homes in the area that aren’t fire safe.”
The biggest danger residents face isn’t a big wall of fire rushing up to their home, it’s ember showers that can be miles ahead of the actual fire.
Having clean gutters, a fire-resistant roof and deck, and defensible space around a home make it difficult for falling embers to ignite a home.
Franz calls this the “all hands, all lands” approach, encouraging residents to do all the prevention they can to keep not only their homes but firefighters safe, she said.
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
While the 2022 wildfire season is predicted to start later than last year, most of Washington remains in a drought with conditions not expected to improve.
“We’re obviously always preparing for the worst,” Franz said. “This year we’re feeling a lot better than last year.”
The Legislature approved a bill last year that provides $125 million every two years for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience.
The Department of Natural Resources added 20 new air resources over the past year along with additional staffing.
The department has continued to have trouble hiring seasonal firefighters, something Franz acknowledged is due in part to low pay.
“We know that they’re not competitive given the challenge of the work,” Franz said of firefighter salaries.
Despite hiring struggles, officials hope increasing resources will help keep wildfires smaller. Last year, 94% of wildfires in Washington were contained below 10 acres.
“We are preparing that for another significant fire season,” Franz said. “We do not believe it’ll be as bad as last year.”
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