Dry spring, hot temperatures across the state
It’s extremely rare for the entire state to have 100% fire danger, but an exceptionally dry spring and record-breaking temperatures in June have created uniquely hazardous conditions.
“That’s one of the scarier aspects,” Vaughn Cork, a Wildfire Fuels Specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said at a news briefing on Wednesday (June 30).
Although fire danger is widespread across the state, central and eastern Washington and windy areas like the Columbia River Gorge are at the highest risk, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said. Conditions in these areas are even worse than they were in 2015, she said.
These conditions mean there’s a significant risk of large, costly fires, DNR Assistant Wildfire Division Manager Angela Lane said. In response, DNR has prepositioned firefighting resources in high-risk areas, Franz said.
Washington is already exceeding its 10-year average for the total number of fires. In particular, the trend of human-caused fires is worsening, DNR wildfire specialists said.
Although the west is experiencing widespread drought, conditions are dire across much of the country. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, almost 44% of the contiguous United States was classified as experiencing moderate to exceptional drought as of June 1.
Twisp and Winthrop are already in “severe drought,” with a narrow north-south band of “moderate drought” in the Methow Valley to the west and at higher elevations, as of June 29. The east slopes of the Cascades are “abnormally dry,” according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Head east or south from Okanogan County and you enter a vast region of “extreme drought,” which blankets the state from Moses Lake to Walla Walla to Spokane.
The week of unprecedented heat in the Northwest at the end of June — 20 to 30 degrees above normal — and dry weather exacerbated the drought across the region.
Although the mountain snowpack has mostly melted off, Washington is in better shape than other western states, since most areas — including the Upper Columbia Basin — received above-average snowfall this past winter. In many regions in the West, winter precipitation was low.
Mazama experienced its driest March and April in 20 years, and Winthrop had its driest March and stayed near the bottom for precipitation through May, according to the National Weather Service.
The parched conditions led local, state and federal land managers to ban campfires and charcoal barbecues in developed campgrounds and in the entire Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest last week. Just before the July 4 holiday weekend, towns across Okanogan County reminded residents and visitors of fireworks bans, and others declared an emergency and prohibited all fireworks.
The Climate Prediction Center forecasts above-normal temperatures across the west through mid-July. The forecast for hotter-than-usual weather covers the entire country except the southeast and Alaska. That will be accompanied by below-normal precipitation, according to the drought mitigation center.
As of Tuesday (July 6), DNR has reported 988 fires, 767 of those in eastern Washington, since January on the land it protects. The fires have burned 1,864 acres, all but 97 in eastern Washington.
The biggest month for fires so far — in terms of number of fires and acres burned — was April. Nevertheless, given that the fire season started early — more than 1,300 acres had burned in January and February — prompt initial attack has kept the total acreage burned low, DNR fire officials said. Almost half of the fires were caused by debris burning or recreation. Where there’s lots of human activity, there’s a greater likelihood of a fire, Franz said.
The state currently has two large fires, the 7,900-acre Batterman Road Fire in East Wenatchee and the 300-acre Andrus Fire near Spokane. The cause of both fires is under investigation.