DNR raises state preparedness level to 2 in June
With unusually hot, dry conditions in May, fire officials with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) raised the state preparedness level to 2 at the beginning of June — the earliest ever, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said at a June 8 briefing on the fire season.
Although wildfire risk fluctuates with the weather — the second week of June brought some precipitation and a cold front, which tempered the danger somewhat — that cold front was ushered in by strong, blustery winds that whipped up two wildfires near Okanogan (see story on page A7).
As of last weekend, DNR had reported 433 fires statewide on the lands it protects, with a total of 2,119 acres burned, 89% of them east of the Cascades. DNR’s goal is to keep fires at 10 acres or less, a goal they’ve met over the past decade, Franz said.
While this spring has already been busy for fires, most have been extinguished while they were small, DNR Wildfire Assistant Division Manager Angie Lane said. The vast majority of fires have been human caused, most from burning of vegetation that got out of control. People should pay attention to conditions, not the date on the calendar, Lane said.
“The conditions we’re seeing right now are conditions we expect in August — it will be a long, dry, windy summer,” DNR Communication Manager Jessa Lewis said after the fires near Okanogan last week. “We’re expecting some tinderboxes and want to preserve resources for lightning strikes,” she said.
Additional funding from the state Legislature has enabled DNR to purchase more equipment to contain fires.
This season, DNR has 37 aircraft prepositioned across the state that will be moved around as needed. There are 24 engines and four crews stationed in DNR’s Northeast region, with a total of 67 engines across the state. The agency has 18 surplus engines to deploy in high-risk areas, up from 10 last year.
DNR has added four 20-person hand crews and six 10-person crews. The agency has 16 bulldozers, four excavators with brush attachments to build and clear fire lines, and two fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared mapping to monitor fire activity, Lane said.
DNR also pointed to improvements in forest health in central and eastern Washington accomplished through its 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which aims to restore 1.25 million acres. As of last fall, DNR and its partners had completed forest-health treatments on almost 500,000 acres, fire officials said at the briefing.
Hot and dry
June typically brings the last chance for wetting rains, DNR Wildfire Meteorologist Matthew Dehr said. Even with average rainfall from this point on, precipitation in the state will still be below normal for the past six months, he said.
Spring green-up has peaked and grasses on south-facing slopes are already starting to turn brown, Dehr said. Drier fuels mean a fire will burn deeper into the soil and consume more vegetation, making it harder to put out, DNR Wildfire Communication Manager Thomas Kyle-Milward said.
Meteorologists expect an El Niño pattern, which tends to bring warm and dry conditions, from now through the winter. Since summer and fall are already hot and dry here, the primary effects will be seen in the winter, which could mean elevated wildfire risks in 2024, Dehr said.
In the end, the fire season is affected by factors from weather to human carelessness. “If you want to know how the season is going to go, ask me in October. There are too many variables,” DNR Fire Regulation Program Manager Vaughn Cork said.