Risks increase with hotter, drier conditions

By Marcy Stamper

Although this summer has been wetter than the past two, in just six days this past week state firefighters responded to 82 wildfire starts, all but two of them likely human caused.

The majority of these were accidents, started by sparks from a flat tire and wheel, by tow chains dragging on the ground, or a tree falling on a powerline, according to Janet Pearce, communications manager for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Fewer than 10 were attributed to unattended campfires, she said.

After a wetter-than-usual start to the summer, much of Washington is now experiencing characteristic hot, windy weather, which increases the risk of new fires and makes them harder to control. Fire danger in Okanogan County is now at the highest level, termed “very high/extreme.”

Last week, DNR instituted a complete burn ban, which forbids outdoor burning, including campfires, on lands under the agency’s protection across the state. The campfire ban has been well received, said Pearce. “People are on guard,” she said. “Our fuel is so receptive a fire could take off very quickly. One little spark can just take off.”

Despite the extra moisture, DNR firefighters had responded to 637 fires as of Aug. 30. While that was almost three-fourths of last year’s calls, the damage caused by those fires was dramatically reduced — the 15,400 acres burned thus far in Washington are under 5 percent of last year’s toll.

Wetter summer, better preparedness

Additional money from the state Legislature has enabled DNR to respond more quickly to those fires, said Pearce.

DNR has twice as many single-engine air tankers as last year, most stationed in high-risk areas in Eastern Washington. The agency also has eight helicopters — one stationed in Omak and one in Okanogan — and six more on contract.

DNR has expanded its engine fleet with 13 larger engines, bringing the total to 103. The new engines accommodate four firefighters rather than three. “Fire districts say it’s making a world of difference to put out fires on the ground,” said Pearce.

Illegal burning still a problem

The comparatively mild fire season in the county and state may have reduced the perception of fire danger. “People think it’s OK to burn when it’s wetter and cooler, but one-hour fuels dry out as fast as they get wet,” said Cody Acord, interim chief for Okanogan County Fire District 6. One-hour fuels are fine grasses and twigs up to 1/4-inch in diameter that respond quickly to changes in weather and moisture.

Reports of illegal burning in Okanogan County are about the same as last year, said Acord. In the Methow Valley and Okanogan County, sheriff’s deputies have responded to 54 calls about illegal burns so far this year.

In most cases, people were burning brush, according to Mike Worden, chief deputy of communications for the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department. Town and city officers have responded to another two dozen calls, he said.

Over the past six years, the number of illegal burns reported to Okanogan County dispatch has ranged from a low of 56 in 2011 to a high of 119 in 2012. From 2013 to 2015, the number of calls has been fairly constant — between 74 and 88.

Some of these reports turn out to be unfounded — a person may have an exemption to do agricultural burning or someone may have mistaken blowing dust or ash for smoke, said Worden.

People may have become more vigilant about reporting suspicious smoke. The proportion of unfounded reports has doubled in the past six years. One-third of the calls in 2011 and 2012 were unfounded, but from 2013 through 2015, two-thirds were false alarms, said Worden.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers thinks public awareness about fire risk has been growing. “The last two years scared a lot of people,” he said. “People are getting smarter and learning that you can’t have burn barrels,” which have been illegal in Washington since 2000.

Sheriff’s deputies have issued only one citation this year, for burning of trash and plastics, which is always illegal, said Rogers. Typically, when law enforcement and firefighters respond to an illegal burn, they advise the individuals of the burn ban and make sure they put the fire out, but don’t write a ticket, he said.

Mowers and weed whackers are a big risk every year, particularly in a field of dry grass or weeds, said Rogers. “There are some people with real dry, rocky ground. Don’t even try,” he said. “You’re going to start a fire.”

Fire activity

In August, firefighters have responded to several wildfires in Okanogan County. They extinguished lightning starts near Palmer Lake on Aug. 13 and controlled other small blazes near Omak Lake on Aug. 21.

Last week DNR crews controlled the 760-acre Pickens North Fire five miles north of Tonasket, which had burned one cabin and threatened 50 other structures. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The Methow Valley has been experiencing occasional smoke from the Buck Creek Fire, which has burned about 2,000 acres in the Glacier Peak Wilderness northwest of Leavenworth. Fire managers predict that smoke may become more noticeable here over the next few weeks as the low-intensity fire spreads. With a forecast of rain later this week, fire activity is expected to diminish in the near future, but crews were still prepping roads and historic structures for anticipated gradual growth over the next few weeks.

The Buck Creek Fire and the nearby Saul Fire are both believed to have been ignited by lightning on July 22, but the Saul Fire had been smoldering and was not discovered for about a month, according to Paul Laak, information officer for the Buck Creek Fire.

Fire managers with Wenatchee River Ranger District have been highlighting the important role the Buck Creek and Saul fires are playing in forest recovery.

“This area of the Glacier Peak Wilderness has not seen a fire in nearly 100 years of recorded fire history. The conditions this year continue to be an excellent opportunity to allow a naturally ignited fire to play its natural role in the fire adapted ecosystem,” the district said in a statement about the fire.

“For several days warmer, drier conditions have aided new, healthy fire spread in old growth areas of the Glacier Peak Wilderness,” said incident commander Dave Nalle. “We are continuing to actively prepare for future growth as this fire helps restore the forest.”

Unlike the Buck Creek Fire, the Saul Fire is burning in areas that have burned, which has contributed to its minimal activity and slow spread, said Laak.

The ability to let these wildfires burn to benefit the forest is directly linked to this summer’s weather. “It’s the right place and the right time to do this kind of management,” said Laak.

“Last year, this fire would have been explosive,” he acknowledged. Indeed, the 2015 Wolverine Fire destroyed a vast area in the same region. It incinerated everything, including root systems, making it too dangerous to reopen trails and campgrounds because of hazard trees and the risk of flash floods or landslides, said Laak.

By contrast, Laak expects forest managers will be able to clear and reopen trails in the Buck Creek area as soon as the snow melts next spring.

The most serious fires in Washington were burning near Spokane. They had burned about 25,000 acres and two dozen structures as of Tuesday (Aug. 30) but are largely contained. Their cause is under investigation.