'A rapidly evolving, intensifying natural disaster': Wash. heads into wildfire season with record number of early fires

The National Interagency Fire Center issued a bulletin warning of "above normal significant fire potential" for much of the Northwest for July through September


Joseph O'Sullivan
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — As he makes the rounds on his Okanogan County ranch, Joel Kretz watches for moisture with fire on his mind.

It's been a cold spring, said Kretz, who is also a GOP state representative, "and then every time it rained, we got a ton of wind afterward, dried it all up."

Every Washington wildfire season brings a reckoning with the tea leaves to get a lead on what the summer and fall might bring: snowpack levels, weather predictions, drought conditions.

Right now, a widespread drought is raising fears about the months ahead.

"I'm really nervous," Kretz said over the phone earlier this month. "I've lived here on Bodie Mountain for 31 years, and it's probably dry as I've ever seen it at this point."

Residents across the state these past several years have become intimate with one or another hellish manifestation of wildfire season: blankets of smoke muddying the air; swaths of forest and grasslands scorched; homes, businesses and towns burned to the ground; lives lost. Even the rainforests have caught fire.

The start of this season doesn't look promising. This month, the National Interagency Fire Center issued a bulletin warning of "above normal significant fire potential" for much of the Northwest for July through September.

On Thursday, the National Weather Service's Spokane office tweeted a drought map showing "a large portion of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho are now under severe and extreme drought ..."

Already this year, the state has responded to at least 410 blazes on state lands, according to state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. She called it "the highest number of year-to-date fires in our history."

Too early to know

In the Pacific Northwest, fires come every year — and devastation isn't a sure thing. Fire seasons that look bad in June might turn out to be mild. Other seasons start off quietly, raising hopes, and then take a harsh and destructive turn for the worse.

That second scenario happened last year, when a relatively mellow summer gave way to explosive fires in early September across the state. In a five-day stretch, the fires burned the second-highest number of acres for any season in recorded history.

For the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, a fresh fire season brings new trepidation. Located in the same region as Kretz's ranch, the tribes have suffered bad fire seasons in 2015, 2019 and last year, when several homes and a mill were lost.

The tribes face challenges like poor communications infrastructure that can hamper firefighting capabilities, according to Jack Ferguson, council member on the Colville Business Council, the tribes' governing body. Meanwhile, unhealthy federal forests in the area, which have more dead and fallen trees and other fuel that can ignite, pose a special risk.

"It's bad," said Ferguson. "We're hoping that we can dodge another catastrophe out here."

After a string of bad fire years since 2014, Washington's elected officials have begun to take action to prevent and combat them, and to reduce their impact.

State legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee took an even bigger step this year, appropriating roughly $130 million to combat wildfires over the next two years. That will fund more firefighters, equipment and programs to clean out unhealthy forests and help communities become more resilient.

That money, however, comes too late to have an impact this year.

Preparing for fire season

The Department of Natural Resources, which is overseen by Franz, heads into the season with about 60 full-time firefighters and more than 100 fire engines.

The agency leads the state wildfire-response efforts and operates 10 helicopters — many of them Vietnam-era UH-1 "Hueys." The agency also has some fixed-wing aircraft, including some on exclusive contract, "so we have them ready as needed for fires," said Franz.

Those machines are often key to quickly snuffing out fires via water drops before they expand into larger blazes.

The agency also takes on about 3,000 seasonal, part-time wildland firefighters, according to Franz, who will become available in the coming days and weeks.

Additionally, 200 Washington National Guard members will be available to help. Those members received fire training in late May at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

It's not a matter of whether those firefighters see service, but how much fire they'll ultimately have to fight.

Blazes spark every year. Between 80% and 90% of fires started are caused by humans, according to Franz. Lightning strikes are also known for sparking fires.

An increasing number of fires both last year and this year to-date ignited from people burning piles of debris.

"I think you have people who are at home because of COVID, they're in their yards, they're doing their spring cleaning," said Franz.

But drought conditions make that more dangerous, she added, especially in parts of Washington — like the southwestern counties — that usually keep relatively wet and cool in the spring.

Last year, fires on both sides of the Cascade Mountains also highlighted the role power lines can play.

During an Eastern Washington windstorm last September, a sparking Avista Corp. line ignited a blaze in the Malden area, destroying 121 homes. Around the same time, a Western Washington blaze, started when a tree fell on power lines, destroyed several homes in Pierce County served by Puget Sound Energy.

State regulators, however, are not requiring electric utilities to develop plans for power shut-offs that could be used to prevent the ignition of fires.

"Really dried out"

Experts have attributed the increasing danger to a few dynamics. One is climate change — which can bring both warmer weather and insects that can kill trees.

Another factor is decades of fire suppression by public lands agencies. That has allowed dead trees and other fuels to build up, which might have otherwise been cleared out via milder burns that can be healthy for forests. Meanwhile, more people are living in exurban areas, bringing their lives and property closer to danger.

This year, Washington's mountains had a good winter for snowpack. At higher elevations, there's still more snow than usual, which will melt off and fill main rivers, said Nick Bond, the state climatologist.

The drought comes into play in the lower elevations, where areas endured below-average rainfall for an extended period of time.

"And so that landscape is really dried out," said Bond. Coming on top of the current dryness, he added, are forecasts of summer weather "on the warm side and on the dry side."

The current drought maps "do not bode well" at this point, said Franz.

And then there's Western Washington, where fires in Pierce County last year destroyed several homes.

"We don't have the kind of 100,000-acre, or 50,00-acre fires" in Western Washington, said Franz. "But we have more fuel load, and also have more people living in closer proximity to those forests."

"Intensifying natural disaster"

To work with Kretz, the GOP lawmaker, Democrats picked a Kirkland lawmaker with his own connections to the blazes.

Rep. Larry Springer's cabin sits near Lake Wenatchee, and he and his wife have been evacuated from it more than once over the years due to fires.

And Springer, who owns a retail wine store, said he's often in contact with people in Washington's agricultural industry east of the mountains.

"The degree to which they're threatened more and more every year, it just has become a personal issue," he said.

Springer rattled off DNR numbers that showed "the growth and the intensity of the wildfires over the decades."

In the 1990s, about 86,000 acres burned on average per year, according to DNR estimates. That increased to an average of 189,000 acres annually, in the 2000s.

Between 2015 and 2019, an annual 488,000 acres burned on average.

And last year, 812,000 acres burned — an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

"This is a rapidly evolving, intensifying natural disaster," said Springer. "And frankly, hoping for a damp, cool summer is not a strategy."

The new wildfire legislation, House Bill 1168, and the accompanying money will provide for 100 new full-time firefighters, as well as a pair of fixed-wing aircraft and upgrades to the helicopters, according to Franz. It will also provide the funding to restore the health of and reduce the fuel load in 1.25 million acres of forestland.

The legislation will also help small communities around Washington better protect themselves from wildfires.

At the same time, the state Department of Labor and Industries is considering an emergency rule intended to help protect workers from wildfire smoke.

That rule, which could take effect this summer, could touch on, among other things, identifying and controlling harmful exposures to smoke.

No matter what happens in the months ahead, Washingtonians will have to keep adapting to increased fires, said Bond, the climatologist.

"It's becoming more and more of a problem," he said. "It doesn't mean every year is going to be a bad year, it doesn't mean we can't do anything about it ... that's part of our existence now."

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