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There was a ‘categorical shift’ in Western Washington wildfire season

Eastern Washington traditionally receives the bulk of attention during wildfire season. But state officials are focusing more on the wildfire season in Western Washington this summer, as the region’s fires are expected to dramatically increase.

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Following one of the driest Mays on record, the state is shifting the way it prepares for Western Washington wildfire season. Aaron Schmidt with the Department of Natural Resources explains as much in a Facebook video with Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. He says DNR is staging three helicopters west of the Cascades — a move that has never been needed before.

“Historically, Western Washington has had really benign fire activity. In the last five years, that’s been a categorical shift,” Schmidt said. “So much so that we are staging three helicopters in Western Washington this year.”

Schmidt says there are a number of things contributing to the rise in wildfire activity in Western Washington.

“Western Washington is seeing drier fuel conditions, we are seeing different onshore flows, our marine moisture layer is not there like it usually has been,” Schmidt said. “We are seeing multiple 100-acre fires in southwest Washington, and northwest Washington, which is very atypical. It lends itself to a changing fire environment.”

Evolving Western Washington wildfire season

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said that wildfires in Washington are evolving and becoming more severe.

“Washington state, like many of our states across the United States, is seeing more significant wildfires,” Franz said. “We’ve seen on our landscape, especially starting from 2014 through 2016, a longer and larger fire season than historically.”

In 2014-16, Washington burned more than 1 million acres which cost the state more than half a billion dollars, Franz said. There was progress last year with officials keeping most fires below 10 acres. But Franz notes that Washington has about 2.7 million acres of forests in “poor health” and the fires are getting worse.

“The fires we see today are nothing like we had 20 years ago, and we know that 20 years from now we’re likely to see even more significant fire landscapes,” Franz said. “We’re not only seeing fire on our landscape in the eastern and central part of our state, which has been more traditional, we are seeing it more significantly on our west side.”

MyNorthwest’s Dyer Oxley contributed to this article.

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