By Marcy Stamper

A week of cooler weather and cloud cover prompted land managers to relax some restrictions on campfires and firewood cutting last week. But campfires are still banned in the national forest because conditions are still too dry, said Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) lifted restrictions on campfires in approved fire pits in its designated campgrounds on Sept. 20. But the agency included a caveat in the announcement. “We’re thankful to have rain help wet our landscapes, but as we saw with a quick-moving fire east of Ellensburg Sunday evening [Sept. 17], we’re not out of fire season quite yet,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. “I urge everyone to check with their local authorities before lighting campfires.”

In the Methow and Tonasket ranger districts, there was not enough moisture to change the complete ban on campfires, whether in designated or dispersed campsites or in the wilderness, said Liu.

While surrounding areas did get measurable precipitation, as of last week the Methow Valley district — and the Diamond Creek Fire — hadn’t even received a “wetting rain” (1/10th of an inch), said Liu.

Increased moisture (particularly in fine fuels like grasses) moderated fire behavior on the Diamond Creek Fire, but there was not enough moisture to alleviate the conditions in larger fuels like trees and stumps, said Liu. A forecast for warmer, sunnier weather means conditions will become more vulnerable again, said Liu. “I don’t think [recent moisture] will mitigate fire conditions,” he said.

The only restriction that’s been eased by the ranger district is the industrial-precaution level that affects firewood cutting, which had been shut down completely. The district started selling firewood permits again on Sept. 20, but use of chainsaws and other equipment is still restricted to the morning hours. Firewood cutters must shut down by 1 p.m. and maintain a one-hour fire watch.

Other parts of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Chelan, Kittitas and Yakima counties got enough rain to allow campfires in designated campgrounds and certain wilderness areas, but all parts of the forest in Okanogan County are still under the complete ban.

Similarly, in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, the burn ban in Skagit and Whatcom counties has been lifted, but all areas south and east of the Cascade crest still have a complete prohibition on campfires and barbecue grills.

Campfire and barbecue restrictions were also lifted last week in Pearrygin Lake State Park but there is still a ban at Alta Lake State Park.

Other types of outdoor burning are still prohibited by DNR and Okanogan County. The Bureau of Land Management announced Tuesday (Sept. 26) that it was lifting fire restrictions in eastern Washington.

Spike in human-caused fires

This year, a higher-than-average percentage — 90 percent — of wildfires on DNR land have been human-caused, according to Joe Smilie, communications manager for DNR. In most years, fires caused by humans account for 80 to 90 percent of the total, he said. Human causes include campfires, tossed cigarettes, arson and children playing with fire.

Escaped and abandoned campfires are one of the leading causes of wildfires in the state, with an annual average of 105 fires started by campfires over the past five years, said Smilie.

Data from those years shows that while the majority of fires on lands protected by DNR in the Northeast region (which includes much private property) are human-caused, the largest wildfires tend to be started by lightning.

The percentage of fires that start in what’s typically the driest part of the season — from Labor Day weekend through mid-September — has gone down in that time, from 17.5 percent in 2012, to 4 percent in 2015, and 6 percent in 2016. Smilie attributed that change in part to having National Guard troops trained and available to fight ongoing fires, leaving DNR’s initial attack crews to respond to new starts.

“There’s also just the overall misery of these big wildfire seasons,” he said by email. “We’ve noticed fewer people go out into our fire-prone areas … because of the active fires and … the smoke in the air. Since the vast majority of our fires are caused by people, fewer people on the landscape equals fewer fires.”

By contrast, in a typical year in the Methow Valley Ranger District, the vast majority of wildfires are caused by lightning. Fires with human causes — mostly unattended campfires — are generally caught while they’re small, said Liu.

The cause of the Diamond Creek Fire is still under investigation, but fire managers have determined the fire to be human-caused.

The Diamond Creek Fire — the largest in Washington this season — has burned almost 130,000 acres in the Pasayten Wilderness and Canada.

At a meeting about the Diamond Creek Fire last month, a member of the public asked why the ranger district doesn’t ban all campfires starting in June. Liu, who wasn’t at the meeting, said last week that setting an arbitrary date wouldn’t serve the recreating public. There is often still a lot of green vegetation early in the season and conditions don’t warrant imposing widespread restrictions, he said.