The 2015 Wolverine Fire in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Lake Chelan. Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Natural Resources/Kari Greer

The 2015 Wolverine Fire in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Lake Chelan. Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Natural Resources/Kari Greer

Western Washington faces elevated wildfire risk in 2019

Humans cause majority of fires in state

Fire authorities are gearing up for another long fire season in the Pacific Northwest after predictions were released earlier this week.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) released its April through July fire predictions for the country, and the report shows that Western Washington will be more prone to fires than usual over the coming months. While Western Washington, including Puget Sound, will have a higher risk of fires, much of the risk in Eastern Washington remains average. This is expected to change in the northern areas of the state along the Canadian border in June and July in areas of the state that have been decimated by wildfires in recent years.

“We’re probably in for a long fire season. We really hope we’re wrong, but probably aren’t with some of these predictions going on, but we want people to report any fire they see to 911,” said Janet Pearce, communications manager for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “We’d rather have a false alarm than a large wildfire that no one called in.”

This year has already seen 51 fires in March alone, with 49 of them happening west of the Cascades in southwest Washington, primarily in Cowlitz and Lewis counties and along the Columbia River. Some 90 residents in Cowlitz County were evacuated and around 272 acres were burned in the historically fire-resistant west side. These fires were caused mainly by people burning yard waste, and fires are expected to continue to start on the west side.

Precipitation was generally above average across most western U.S. states. As the spring greening begins in April, mountain snowpack will begin to melt, and snowpack melt rates are more important than snowpack levels in figuring out potential fire season activity, the NIFC report said. If snow melts at normal or slower than average rates, it can postpone fire season, whereas faster melts generally lead to forests at higher elevations catching fire sooner. In lower elevations, lots of winter and spring moisture will likely mean more grass, which will become fire-ready across the western states between May and July.

Carol Connolly with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center agreed that Western Washington faces a higher than normal wildfire risk that will increase as more people do things like burn yard waste.

“One of the things that we are asking folks within April and May and beyond is to exercise that extreme caution in those areas,” Connolly said.

Calling local fire departments for conditions or restrictions before burning can help prevent fires. Human-caused fires have been a main cause of wildfires in recent years. In Washington state last year, there were 1,744 fires that affected nearly 439,000 acres, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. Of those, 1,457 were human-caused, accounting for nearly 280,000 of the acres that burned.

While the fire risk for much of Eastern Washington is average, there could still be large fires.

“What is normal? Normal’s changed over the last couple years,” Connolly said.

This year’s fire season could look similar to others in recent years, which have been growing more intense for a number of reasons. One of these is rapidly dying forests across the state. In previous coverage, DNR commissioner Hilary Franz said some 2.7 million acres of diseased and dying forestland in the state provided perfect conditions for wildfires. This is largely due to disease and pests, which take advantage of trees stressed by a lack of water. The DNR is asking the state Legislature for a historic $55 million for wildfire response and forest health management, which would include treating forests to better withstand fires and nearly doubling the amount of full-time firefighters employed by the department.

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