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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Crime/Public Safety

‘Don’t be the spark:’ Early predictions point to a manageable fire season, but you should still remain cautious

A firefighting aircraft drops water on a wildfire last summer along the Rimrock Drive bluff west of downtown Spokane. Fire personnel urge the public to take precautions to prevent wildfires.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
A firefighting aircraft drops water on a wildfire last summer along the Rimrock Drive bluff west of downtown Spokane. Fire personnel urge the public to take precautions to prevent wildfires. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
By Saydee Phothivongsa The Spokesman-Review

Early hints from rainfall and weather forecasts point to an average wildfire season in the Northwest, according to fire and weather experts. But even an average wildfire year is highly destructive, and fire managers urge people to take precautions and work to prevent fires.

In the past five years, wildfires have burned at least 265 square miles annually in Washington. In two of the past five years, more than 1,000 square miles burned, including 1,316 square miles in 2020, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

The good news is, depending on where you are in the region, predictions say this year could be a manageable fire season. Variables can significantly impact the fire season and are difficult to predict, such as straight-line winds and long drying-out periods with excessive heat, Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said.

The current weather points to a typical beginning to fire season, but there is potential for above-average fire activity in July and August, said Thomas Kyle-Milware, Department of Natural Resources wildlife communications manager.

The two or three spells of recent above-average temperatures could be concerning before summer, as this can cause a rapid decrease in mountain snowpack, National Weather Service representative Greg Koch said. This can be a problem because there could be less runoff by the thick of fire season, leaving more chance for fuels to dry out.

Typically, the severity of wildfire season is dependent on how dry and warm the summer is, in addition to the possibility of lightning that can start a fire, he said.

Roughly 87% of wildfires are caused by human activity, and educating the public on fire prevention and best practices during this time of the year is crucial, Kyle-Milware said.

“Part of the appeal of the Pacific Northwest is getting to spend time in our beautiful outdoor spaces,” Kyle-Milware said. “That being said, we do see conditions start to dry out; regardless of whether there is a burn ban or other restriction in place, just practicing responsible recreation is huge.”

Schaeffer recommends paying close attention to fire and burn regulations from the county found on the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency website.

He also urges people to not burn, since even a small campfire can turn dangerous.

Koch said it is important to remember that once a fire starts, it can spread rapidly.

People who have recreational fires should make sure the fire is completely out, with no chance of spreading to another area, Schaeffer said.

The National Interagency Fire Center issues an outlook on the wildfire danger each month, which is helpful in gauging the upcoming wildfire season, he said.

The Climate Prediction Center has issued an El Niño Watch, with a 62% chance of El Niño conditions developing during May through July, according to the outlook.

El Niño is the warm phase of the water temperature in the Southwest Pacific Ocean. For the Northwest region, this can cause conditions that are warmer and dryer than normal, said Daniel Butler, National Weather Service representative.

Even though predictions suggest a manageable fire season, fire departments are taking the upcoming season seriously and are ready for anything, Schaeffer said.

“Don’t be the spark,” Kyle-Milware said.

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