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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

This year was one of Washington’s ‘most challenging’ fire seasons yet, according to lands chief

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz speaks Wednesday at the Department of Natural Resources hanger of the Olympia Regional Airport.  (Ellen Dennis / The Spokesman-Review)

TUMWATER, Wash. – As cooler temperatures blanket much of Washington this week, state officials welcomed the change in weather and the apparent end of another grueling fire season.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz on Wednesday held a news conference near Olympia to discuss what she described as one of Washington’s “most challenging” fire seasons. That hardship has been most evident in the aftermath of August’s Gray and Oregon Road fires in Spokane County.

“This is the moment where we need to still remember this fire season isn’t over for those who lost their homes and lost loved ones,” Franz said. “We need to do everything we can to help them rebuild their lives, rebuild their neighborhoods.”

The lands commissioner went on to commend the “unbelievable courage” of Spokane County Fire District 10 Deputy Chief Andres Steevens, who lost his home to the blaze but carried on to protect his community.

The Oregon Road fire near Elk, and the Gray fire on the West Plains, both sparked on Aug. 18 and burned more than 10,000 acres each. They destroyed 366 homes, claimed two lives and rank among the worst natural disasters in Washington history.

‘A wake-up call’

Despite the catastrophes in Spokane County, some Washingtonians have said this year’s fire season wasn’t so bad, and that the state got lucky compared to past years.

“It wasn’t luck that left us with blue skies most of the summer and early fall,” Franz said Wednesday. “It was actual leadership. It was leadership from our local fire districts and fire chiefs.”

So far in 2023, 18,080 fires have sparked in Washington. They burned 165,365 acres of land in total – a number well below the state’s 10-year annual average of 472,881, according to data from the state Department of Natural Resources.

Also this year, firefighters contained 95% of the fires in the state to under 10 acres, surpassing the DNR’s goal of keeping 90% of all burns below 10 acres.

For the first time , Franz said, the western side of the state saw more fires this year than central and Eastern Washington combined. Many of those West Side fires sparked in densely populated areas.

“Sometimes we think that wildfire is something that only is impacting central and Eastern Washington,” Franz said. “But with the fact that more than half of our fires were on the West Side of the state, it is a wake-up call to Western Washington.”

Franz said, moving forward, DNR needs to draft a forest health plan for land west of the Cascades like it has done for much of central and Eastern Washington.

“Our forests over here are a lot different,” she said. “They are a little more complicated and challenging.”

‘Every corner of the state’

Right now, 85% percent of fires that spark in Washington are caused by humans. Among the common causes are debris pile burns, people leaving campfires without putting them out all the way, chains dragging from trucks on a busy interstate causing a spark to fly off the asphalt and utility infrastructure that malfunctions.

Across Washington, a multiyear drought and warming temperatures have stressed trees and forest ecosystems. Longer, hotter summers are, year after year, are creating conditions ripe for wildfires.

“Absolutely, climate change is a factor,” Franz said. “… in every corner of the state.”

As evidence of warming temperatures, the lands commissioner pointed to a fire near Neah Bay in late November that prompted evacuations and school closures.

“Our climate is changing our forests,” she said, “Our forests are struggling.”

The acreage burned in the state this year likely would have been a lot larger if not for new technology and help from the state’s coffers, Franz said. In 2021, the Legislature passed a bill that promised $125 million every two years to be used for preventing and fighting fires.

Franz said when she started her job as lands commissioner, the state agency had eight Vietnam War-era helicopters to fight fires. Today, she said the agency operates 40 “air resources.”

Moving forward, the lands commissioner said the DNR must continue to invest in technology such as fire detection cameras that use artificial intelligence and phone alerts to let people know when and where to go in the case of an evacuation.