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‘More significant’ wildfires, smoke expected in Washington this summer

Wildfires hit north of Walla Walla, Wash. in August 2016. (Greg Lehman/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via AP)

Washington experienced an all time record of wildfires in 2018, with smoke clouding much of the state. According to officials, 2019 will be worse.

“Unfortunately, we are likely to see even more significant fires and more significant smoke this year,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. “Last year, we had 1,850 fires total. The most our state has ever had on record — 40 percent of those fires west of the Cascades. The season really got started in early May and went well through October.”

“Given the (current) drought conditions, we’ve already had over 300 fires to date this year, with 50 percent of those west of the Cascades,” she said. “In fact, we saw our fires starting as early as the second week of March, which frankly is unprecedented in our state.”

Noting the fires west of the Cascades is significant. This is the wetter part of the state, meaning it is usually more resilient against wildfires. It’s also more populated than the rest of Washington. Franz says that Washington has about 2.2 million homes exposed to wildfire this season.

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“As we see increasing wildfires in the west part of our state, in areas that have not usually had fires, like Wahkiakum and Grays Harbor, the coastal counties, we get very, very concerned,” she said. “When you look at the drought map you will see that much of these drought conditions are in very heavily populated areas, and areas that are not used to fire.”

Forest health and wildfires

Franz said that the reason Washington is experiencing such considerable wildfires is not only because of drought conditions. There is also a “forest health crisis” with 2.7 million acres of forests in Eastern Washington that are dying. Causes range from insect infestation, disease, and drought conditions.

The Department of Natural Resources plans to treat 70,000 acres of land annually over the next 20 years. That means removing smaller trees that are competing with larger trees for water as well as diseased vegetation, and using prescribed fire to burn away dry fuel on the forest floor.

“We are rapidly scaling up our work, because we believe if we do this we will reduce the catastrophic wildfires we are seeing,” Franz said.

Washington is partnering with neighboring governments, like British Columbia, on such forest management efforts.

About 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans in Washington state and are preventable. Before heading outdoors, DNR recommends checking for active burn bans.

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