Extreme heat, drought increase fire danger
By Ann McCreary
Extreme heat and drought conditions across the state have prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to issue an emergency proclamation for all 39 counties, activating essential resources needed to prevent and contain wildfires.
Forecasts call for continued high temperatures and dry conditions around the state, creating conditions for extreme wildfire risk.
“The fire danger now is unlike any we’ve seen in a long time, if ever,” Inslee said in an announcement of the emergency proclamation. “We need to be prepared for the possibility of an unprecedented fire season.”
The proclamation gives the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) the ability to call on the National Guard and the State Guard on short notice to assist in responding to wildfires.
Public land agencies around the state have imposed bans or restrictions on outdoor burning and campfires as a result of the dangerous conditions.
All outdoor fires are prohibited on DNR lands, and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission has banned all campfires at state parks. The ban prohibits all fires, including wood and charcoal fires in designated campground fire pits or campfire rings. Gas and propane cook stoves are allowed.
Burning restrictions are in place on U.S. Forest Service lands. In Okanogan County, wood and charcoal fires are allowed on Forest Service lands only in metal fire rings at designated campgrounds. Campfires are also allowed within the Pasayten and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth wilderness areas.
“Humans are the cause of more than 62,000 fires each year,” said Matt Desimone, fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District. “That’s six times the average number caused by lightning.”
Even where campfires are permitted, the fire and any source of flame should be totally extinguished and cool to the touch before leaving the campsite, said Desimone.
“Use the metal campfire rings in the campgrounds, clear vegetation away from any flame sources, and do not build fires close to trees, stumps or roots. Keep a shovel and bucket of water close by too,” Desimone said.
In addition to campfire restrictions, woodcutters are reminded to check the industrial fire precaution levels each day before beginning work. Currently, most zones in Okanogan County require shutting down chainsaws at 1 p.m. and remaining in the area for one hour to watch for smoke.
The governor’s emergency declaration was made early in the summer in an effort to have firefighting resources ready to quickly mobilize and put out fires before they grow.
Last week about 125 new Washington National Guard members received firefighting training in Yakima. Last year more than 850 Guard members helped fight wildfires.
“Our forests and grasslands are so dry that once a fire starts, it will be more difficult to suppress. We need to take all the precautionary steps possible, and residents should do whatever they can to reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark.
With the Fourth of July holiday approaching, Inslee and Goldmark urged people to limit their use of fireworks, or forgo fireworks completely.
DNR and forest health experts believe the increase in early season fires is due to persistent drought on the east side of the Cascades, which have weakened forests and made them more susceptible to insects and disease, and more likely to burn.
In recent years, the state wildfire season has begun earlier and with greater intensity, according to DNR. As of June 23 there have been 313 wildfires across the state. In 2014 by that date there were 214 wildfires; in 2013 there were 169; in 2012 there were 155; and in 2011 there were 55 wildfires by the same date.
Last year’s fire season was the biggest on record in Washington, led by the Carlton Complex Fire, which burned more than 250,000 acres in the Methow Valley and surrounding areas.
More than a million acres of Washington’s landscape has been consumed by wildfire since 2009, according to DNR.