Most of the West is wary as 2018 fire season approaches
Although fire managers are concerned about this year’s wildfire season, Washington is one of the few regions in the West that’s received above-average rain and snow since last fall.
But with extra-dry conditions throughout much of the region — and May hotter and drier just about everywhere — even the high snowpack in the North Cascades melted off quickly, according to Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“We had a cool, wet April — which extended the peak, since snow didn’t melt — but by the first week of May, there was a heat spike and the snowpack took a nose-dive,” said Pattee. “We went from above-normal to below.” The Upper Columbia received just 44 percent of normal precipitation in May.
Still, because the Methow and surrounding area had a very wet fall, got more snow than usual, and lots of rain in April — Twisp got 288 percent of normal precipitation — the soil remains moist, said Pattee.
Wet soil is sort of a mixed blessing. It promotes lush growth of grasses and underbrush and those plants remain moist. But as we head into summer, the smaller vegetation dries out, becoming an abundant supply of hazardous fuels, said Pattee.
A positive aspect of the forecast is that the Washington climatologist is predicting a lower probability of lightning this summer, said Pattee.
For the total water year, which starts in October, this area was above-average, with precipitation about 110 percent of normal, said Pattee. But after May, all but two of a dozen weather stations in this region are snow-free, unusual for this time of year, he said.
The majority of the West — everywhere east and south of north-central Oregon — received very little snow this past winter and is already extremely dry and in high fire danger, said Pattee. “It’s already dire in the Southwest,” he said.
Reservoirs in May were at about 122 percent but the snowpack had dropped to 96 percent of median by June 1. Last year it was 134 percent of the median, according to Pattee’s Washington Water Supply Outlook Report for June 1.
The May heat also caused a marked spike in river levels. May streamflow for the Methow River was 247 percent, and it was even higher in the Okanogan (265 percent) and Similkameen rivers (271 percent), causing record flooding throughout the basin, according to Pattee.
The Methow River is now running at 88 percent of median, compared with 136 percent last year, with a forecast for summer runoff of 72 percent of average.
In the Methow Valley this spring, district firefighters have responded to a typical number of fires, most from burn piles that got out of control. “Remember that winds pick up in the afternoon, and have everything burned in the morning hours,” said Cody Acord, chief of Okanogan County Fire District No. 6.
“We always try to train and be prepared for the worst,” he said. “We’re looking pretty good.”
At a hearing of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on June 5, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) cited a worrisome forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center.
The center predicts a longer and hotter fire season because so many regions in the West received less than half their normal precipitation, she said.
According to the fire center, areas in Washington and Oregon east of the Cascade crest, and in Idaho “will likely experience more large fires than we have seen in the last few years, starting in August,” said Cantwell. “Given what we are looking at this summer, I want to make sure that firefighters have every tool available to them to help fight these fires. They need to be as safe as possible and as efficient as possible,” she said, recalling the destructive Carlton and Okanogan complex fires of 2014 and 2015.
Cantwell told the committee that she’s still concerned about a decision to revamp contracts for air tankers used for fire-retardant and water drops. This year, instead of being on-call around the clock, almost half of the aircraft will be called up only when needed.
When they are deployed, the on-call aircraft will cost more but, unlike exclusive-use contracts, they won’t be paid throughout the season. Cantwell told Vicki Christiansen, interim chief of the U.S. Forest Service, that if the on-call planes are needed often, it could drain funding from other functions.
The Forest Service intends to closely monitor the expenses, said Christiansen. “To be honest … we would like to rebalance this in coming years. We think that we need a little bit more balance between exclusive use and call-when-needed,” she said.
Cantwell also lobbied for up-to-date firefighting technology. She and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) introduced legislation early this year that would provide modern technology for fire crews, including drones and GPS devices to increase safety for firefighters. The bill has had a committee hearing but hasn’t proceeded to the full Senate.
The U.S. Department of the Interior has already done considerable work to incorporate drones in firefighting and has several agreements with the Forest Service to share the research and technology. Existing agreements cover natural-resource management, and the two agencies are working on a memorandum of understanding to use drones for firefighting, said Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist with the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management Program.
In wildfires, drones can provide information about fire starts, size and location. They can carry airborne sensors that can penetrate smoke and haze to get information about a fire. They can also map and prioritize fires, monitor fire behavior and the rate and direction of spread, and identify potential fire breaks such as roads, said Jones.
In May, the Department of the Interior awarded its first-ever contract for drones. The contract allows the agency to use drones for wildland fire operations, search and rescue, and emergency management.
The collaboration between Interior and the Forest Service follows a tradition where each agency takes the lead on a particular type of aircraft. The Forest Service has led research into large air tankers, while Interior has focused on smaller air tankers and drones, according to Interior.