High risk of wildfires already this year
Firefighters from Okanogan County, Washington state and the U.S. Forest Service controlled a 2-acre brush fire on the Golden Doe Wildlife Area south of Twisp on Thursday (June 3).
Firefighters were able to drive to the field where the fire started via a two-track road, about 1/4 mile from the Twisp-Carlton Road, Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Cody Acord said.
The initial call came in around 10:30 a.m. on a 90-degree-plus day. Firefighters from the Twisp station were already checking on smoke from a powerline a few miles north on the same road, Acord said. The two incidents were not related.
After an Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) crew arrived to deal with the powerline, firefighters left one engine to monitor the powerline and headed south to the Golden Doe. After de-energizing the line, the crew replaced an underground terminator — the connection between the underground cable and the pole — that had failed, PUD Community Relations Coordinator Sheila Corson said.
About 15 firefighters from the Twisp, Winthrop and Carlton stations, plus firefighters from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Forest Service, responded to the Golden Doe blaze and had a line around the fire in about three hours. They spent another five hours securing the line, Acord said. Water drops from a DNR helicopter helped control the blaze, which was burning in dry grasses and was spreading to timber, according to District 6.
“Luckily, we had very little wind early on. It began blowing 10-plus later,” District 6 Captain Keith Comstock said.
District 6 called the fire an “accidental start.” The cause is under investigation by DNR.
More fires already this year
As of Thursday (June 4), DNR has responded to 632 fires on 1,686 acres, a 36% increase compared to the same time last year. The majority — 505 — of the fires were in eastern Washington, where they have burned almost 1,600 acres, according to an agency summary. The fires have already consumed 46% more acreage this year than last.
The majority of fires were in far eastern Washington. Most of the fires this year have been caused by debris burns that got out of control, DNR said.
The risk of wildfires is especially high this year, since we haven’t had the usual spring rains, Acord said. Although the snow-water equivalent in the Upper Columbia Basin is still 130% of normal, this spring has been especially dry, breaking records in some areas, according to the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
With the lack of precipitation and ample sunshine, many areas east of the Cascade crest melted out a couple of weeks early, according to NRCS.
Most of Okanogan County is already in a moderate drought, and the wettest region — the east slope of the Cascades — is “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The National Weather Service forecast is for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation this summer.
Simpler burn bans?
The Okanogan County commissioners and the county’s emergency manager, Maurice Goodall, have been looking at how to handle burn bans so they are effective and easily understood, Goodall said.
At their meeting on June 1, the commissioners talked about having a ban that starts on June 1 and runs through Sept. 30 every year, but they haven’t made a decision yet. A set date could encourage people to get their spring burning done earlier, County Commissioner Chris Branch said. County Commissioner Andy Hover noted that strong winds have dried things out even earlier this year.
The ban typically goes into effect before the July 4 holiday.
To simplify things, Goodall is recommending that the commissioners pick a date and use it every year for the ban, unless conditions are so dry that it needs to be earlier.
The commissioners generally receive a recommendation from the county’s fire chiefs. They also look at restrictions imposed by DNR and the Forest Service, but agencies have different restrictions and that can be confusing, Goodall said.
The county uses DNR’s terminology for fire danger rating areas. But, because conditions differ depending on fuel type and elevation, it’s not always straightforward for people to know if they’re covered by a ban. For instance, some of the Methow is in the valley rating area, while higher elevations are in the Methow area. “You could be on the left or right side of the boundary, and you can burn, but I can’t,” Goodall said.
In addition, burning on private property — where people may have a forested area protected by DNR — could be banned by the county but allowed by the state, or vice-versa, Goodall said. To avoid confusion, starting last year, the commissioners’ ban covered all private property in the county. Beyond that, towns and cities set their own bans (and some, like Coulee Dam, never allow burning), Goodall said.
This week, DNR banned campfires in the valley area (most of the Methow), except in approved, designated campgrounds.