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Washington wildfire season off to a particularly bad start

In a Wednesday, July 18, 2018 photo, a local farmer in a tractor plows a fire break near a standing wheat and stubble fire just north of Walla Walla, Wash. (Geg Lehman/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via AP)

By now, most Washingtonians are aware that wildfire season is underway. But it seems that many still aren’t getting the message as most fires have been caused by people this year.

“We are in the time of year when Eastern and Western Washington are typically dried out and ready for wildfires,” said Joe Smillie with Washington’s Department of Natural Resources.But on the west side, we are seeing really, really dry timber and really dry grasses. And that makes fires move faster.”

“You hear the same thing, time and again, you are like ‘OK, I’ve got it,’” he said about people insisting they’re careful with fires. “Hopefully it sinks in. But we see with the numbers that most of our fires are started by humans.”

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Western Washington is primed for a particularly harsh wildfire season this year. State officials have posted more firefighting helicopters in the western region to prepare, something the state has never had to do before.

“Statewide, we are pretty well ahead of where we were last year,” Smillie said. “We are a lot busier.”

Snohomish and King Counties have already taken notice of the threat and implemented burn bans. A stage 1 burn ban is in effect for the region, which essentially means all fires, other than recreational, are prohibited. Recreational fires have to be less than 3 feet in diameter, and in a metal or concrete pit. Fires also have to be 10 feet away from vegetation, and 25 feet away from structures.

The City of Marysville is asking residents not to have any fires, even recreational. Since July 16, Marysville firefighters have responded to at least four brush fires.

“We haven’t received significant rainfall in at least a month, which means our grass and other fuels are extremely dry,” said Marysville Fire Marshal Tom Maloney. “We strongly advise against any type of outdoor burning, even recreational fires, until we received substantial rain.”

Sever Washington wildfires expected

Officials have expected wildfire season to ramp up after July 4. But the fires started early this year. Smillie notes:

  • 2017: There were 661 fires that burned 17,366 acres of DNR land by July
  • 2018: So far, there have been 1,711 fires that have burned 109,000 acres on DNR land

Smillie said that 2015 was a standout year when it comes to wildfires. It appears that 2018 is on par with 2015.

Washington already had to send firefighting crews to help out with fires in Oregon, so Smillie doesn’t think there will be available crews to send to Washington when things get worse later this year.

“By this time in 2015, we had just over 1,000 fires … most of the acreage in that year, the million acres that burned, burned during August,” he said. “That’s what we are looking at going ahead.”

Just in case people haven’t gotten the message, Smillie reminds residents to monitor and fully extinguish campfires. Of course, never dispose of cigarette butts by throwing them out of a car window. In general, don’t have a fire if you don’t have to.

Smillie recommends checking DNR’s burn restriction website about your community’s status.

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