Conditions, preparation both had impact
“Let there be rain! Rain dance next,” Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said as she celebrated the beginning of the end of the 2022 wildfire season in a briefing on Oct. 7.
Despite a late start to the fire season, warm, dry weather has extended it well into October, and fire staff still expect sporadic fire activity, Franz said. A cool, wet spring meant the season started later than usual, but that also allowed grasses and fine fuels to proliferate.
Although 2022 has been the driest year on record, according to Russ Lane, the Wildland Fire Management Division Manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), in terms of fire starts and acres burned, this wildfire season has been the best in a decade.
This year, there have been 1,370 fires — the second-fewest in 10 years, Franz said. By contrast, 2021 — which had the worst drought in state history — had the second-highest number of ignitions, Franz said.
Just 180,000 acres have burned in Washington in 2022. Compare that with last year, when the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek 2 fires alone burned a combined 126,000 acres in and around the Methow Valley.
Franz credited this year’s successes to partnerships between state, federal and local firefighters and comprehensive early-season training that brought together crews from all agencies.
In addition, new equipment was pre-deployed around the state so that fire crews could respond right away to keep fires from spreading. Public education and programs that have helped people make their homes and properties more resilient to fire also made a difference. And, since the majority of fires every year are human caused, increased awareness and vigilance by the public has helped keep new ignitions low, Franz said.
DNR’s goal is to keep 95% of fires under 10 acres, and this year, the agency exceeded that goal. Even last year, DNR kept 94% of fire starts under 10 acres, Franz said.
Although fires this year has been relatively mild, climate change and other factors mean we should expect longer and potentially more serious fire seasons, Franz said. In addition to a defensive strategy to keep fires small, DNR is focusing on forest health by removing dead, dying and diseased trees to make forests less fire-prone, she said.
DNR has treated more than 400,000 acres on federal, state, tribal and private land, primarily in central and eastern Washington, Franz said. But as the climate warms, the forest health crisis is no longer confined to the east side of the Cascades —– it has become a statewide issue, she said.
Money for equipment, crews
Additional funding from the state Legislature has allowed DNR to acquire high-tech aircraft for air attack, command and control, and mapping. The technology, which allows the planes to see through smoke, helps detect fires more rapidly after a lightning storm, Franz said. The money also allowed DNR to replace Vietnam-era helicopters and to purchase more bulldozers and other heavy equipment.
DNR used the funding to hire more full-time and seasonal fire staff, both on the front lines and behind the scenes. DNR was fully staffed this year, with 691 firefighters and supervisory staff, including four additional initial-attack hand crews this year. Still, the agency is always recruiting for fire staff, Franz said.
Fire crews are still monitoring and mopping up the Bolt Creek Fire near Skykomish, which has burned more than 13,000 acres. The fire was just 36% contained as of Oct. 13, with large portions in the burn too steep for firefighters to be on the ground safely, Franz said.
The Northwest Pasayten Complex, in the Pasayten Wilderness near the Canadian border, has burned about 18,000 acres. There is minimal activity now on the five fires that make up the complex. The White River Fire near Wenatchee has burned more than 14,000 acres, and fire managers are still seeing isolated flare-ups and smoldering there.
The McAllister Creek Fire in North Cascades National Park is seeing active burning. As of Oct. 15, the park closed the Colonial Creek campgrounds, beaches on Diablo Lake adjacent to Highway 20, and nearby trails, including the Thunder Knob Trail and parts of the Thunder Creek Trail. Park officials anticipated the potential for rapid fire movement of the TK-acre fire over the weekend because of easterly winds, record-breaking temperatures, and low relative humidity.
The Northwest Pasayten and White River fires were started by lightning. The McAllister Creek Fire is believed to have been started by lightning. The cause of the Bolt Creek Fire is under investigation.
Those fires and others in the North Cascades have been contributing to poor air quality both east and west of the mountains, including in the Methow Valley.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest reduced fire restrictions on Oct. 14, allowing campfires in developed campgrounds and wilderness areas, but not in dispersed sites.
“Our fire restrictions follow a prevention plan, which uses fire danger ratings… and historic fire data to inform timing and levels of fire restrictions based on actual conditions on the ground. The days may be cooler and shorter, but the fuel conditions and fire indices are still showing high fire danger and potential for large fires,” Forest Fire Staff Officer Kyle Cannon said. “Our crews have responded to multiple new starts over the last week, as well as reports of illegal campfires. Please help our firefighters out by knowing and following current fire restrictions.”